Tunesday: Rhiannon Giddens – “Julie”

It’s Tuesday so that means at ilisteniwatch.com, it’s Tunesday! Every Tuesday, we will share a song with you that we love and hope you will too.

In The Slaves’ War, Andrew Ward looks at the American Civil War through the lens of those enslaved. After reading it, Rhiannon Giddens wrote “Julie,” a two character conversation between a slave (Julie) and slave owner. The lyrics here are chilling as the slave owner is so, so in denial about how Julie sees her situation. But with the North’s soldiers encroaching on the plantation, Julie speaks her truth, and that truth hits you right in the heart, gut, and really — all of your vital organs.

Giddens said this:

“And it struck me really forcibly hard — that idea of the complicated relationship between the owners and what they thought of as their property, but were actually in so many ways their family. It just really struck me how in the institution of slavery … no matter how it seems like one group of people wins, everybody loses.” Source

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that, and when I listen to the slave owner’s part of the conversation in “Julie,” I try to listen with a tiny bit of empathy. It’s hard. It’s hard to push down the disgust and try to understand the denial of people so entrenched in this system that they can’t even see that slavery is wrong.

But in the current context of this country’s racial tension, and how little many people understand of the real experiences of each other, it’s also an enlightening exercise. I get frustrated at those who shout “all lives matter” over “black lives matter.” I get frustrated at people who are denial of their own privilege. But then I think – we’re all so entrenched in this system, it takes a lot of clawing and climbing to see the other side. Can I acknowledge that we are all losing? Will that acknowledgment give room for grace? I don’t know. This isn’t a post with answers.

A great story can prompt a lot of self-reflection and questioning, and “Julie” does that. In the performance below, from David Holt’s State of Music, there is Giddens’ perfect vocal delivery. There is an amazing banjo performance. But there is also this beautiful, subtle thing she does, where she looks down between each character shift. You can see when she raises her face and begins the lines that she’s going back and forth between these two views. The mistress wears a pleading, desperate expression. Julie wears defiance and relief. Giddens is embodying both sides, and it’s amazing to watch. It is haunting and thought-provoking. Watch. Please.

Read more from Amanda here and on Twitter: @aaahmanda.