Mar 042024
rhiannon giddens alice randall

On February 21, roots music virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens released a cover of Alice Randall’s “The Ballad of Sally Anne.” It will be included on an upcoming Randall tribute album: My Black Country. Yet, when Giddens looks back on this time, I imagine she’ll be thinking of a different song.

Giddens appears playing banjo and viola on Beyoncé’s new record-breaking, genre-busting country single “Texas Hold ‘Em.” As of this writing, the song is number one on the Billboard country music and pop music charts, inspiring countless internet memes (and fueling fits of hysteria from racist idiots).

For those familiar with Giddens’ work, it’s not a surprise to see her hit such heights. Her work on the Beyoncé track is another fantastic milestone in a career devoted to country and folk music. For the last few decades, Giddens has released numerous roots music albums, both solo and as part of several groups including the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters. She has also penned a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera and is currently the host of the PBS show My Music.

Throughout her career, Giddens has aimed to tell the often-forgotten story of African Americans in country music, a past that has been, to put it mildly, whitewashed. So it seems poetically fitting that she would play on Beyoncé’s hit, as the pop superstar is now the first African American woman to hit number one on the Billboard country charts.

Giddens’ cover of Randall’s “The Ballad of Sally Anne” fits into this tradition as well. Randall is an African-American country songwriter who has penned hits for the likes of Trisha Yearwood and Johnny Cash. The song was first recorded by fiddle legend Mark O’Connor in 1991. A ghostly murder ballad, it tells the tale of Sally Anne, who roams the streets looking for her beloved Johnny after he is lynched.

The cover defies any sense of genre. Like much of Giddens’ work, it features plenty of banjo and fiddle, but she combined it with a rickety drum beat and even some horns. The end result is a retelling of Sally Anne’s story that seems to exist in its own time and space. I recommend listening to the cover alongside Beyoncé’s hit. “Texas Hold ‘Em” is no mere pop crossover masquerading as a country song. Beyoncé took a journey deep into country music’s past, with Giddens leading the way.

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