Almost two months ago I shared a reel on Instagram. I’m still new to reels, so I’ve been experimenting, playing really, exploring the potential. I actually really enjoy the ultra short format videos, and I’ve found the music matching and recommendation capacity provided by Instagram to be a little bit addictive. Sometimes the music recommended is spot on! Or at leas it seems to be…
Instagram recommended a clip from Rhiannon Giddens (@rhiannongiddens) “Build a House” and it seemed perfect! Hauntingly beautiful melody, Yo-Yo Ma (@yoyoma) accompanying on cello, and a message that seemed custom curated for what I was thinking about.
So then I traveled far and wide, far and wide, far and wide
And then I traveled far and wide until I found a home
— Rhiannon Giddens (“Build a House”)
It turns out my haste and enthusiasm got the better of me. Here’s the Instagram Reel.
Arresting voice, mesmerizing lyric, and just plain captivating. Paired with a couple moody mugs of Rosslyn, it felt like a worthwhile experiment in Reel-creation. The platform does a remarkable job of empowering creativity, and I’ve found that the best way to learn is simply to try things out. Sort of like my approach to learning languages. Jump in. You might look silly sometimes, but jettisoning restraint and self consciousness definitely accelerates the learning curve.
I should have done a little more research. Twenty-twenty hindsight. Yes, Rhiannon Giddens and Yo-Yo Ma breath life into “Build A House” in this hypnotic, haunting earworm. But this tiny excerpt of the lyrics — a couplet perfectly paired to my goals — is actually part of a potent song-story that is decidedly ill served by my pairing. In fact, I realize that I’ve flirted uncomfortably close with cultural appropriation. I understand that now.
Here’s Ms. Giddens on the song which was premiered on June 19, 2020.
“This song came knocking about a week ago and I had to open the door and let it in. What can I say about what’s been happening, what has happened, and what is continuing to happen, in this country, in the world? There’s too many words and none, all at once. So I let the music speak, as usual. What a thing to mark this 155th anniversary of Juneteenth with that beautiful soul Yo-Yo Ma. Honored to have it out in the world.” — Rhiannon Giddens
Here’s a clear eyed couple of couplets that add irony to my misappropriation of the verse, of the audio excerpt.
“I learned your words and wrote a song, wrote a song, wrote a song
I learned your words and wrote a song to put my story down
But then you came and took my song, took my song, took my song
But then you came and took my song, playing it for your own”
Rhiannon Giddens (Build a House)
Wow! I don’t think I can do much work in explaining how it felt to realize that I too had come along and taken her song, playing it for my own. Surreal.
Needless to say, I was tempted to remove the reel, to hang my head for perpetuating the pain captured so poignantly in the lyrics. But pretending I hadn’t made the mistake would be disingenuous. Own it. Humbly. Aware that this is not my song. It is borrowed. Out of context. Here’s the correct context.
That’s Rhiannon Giddens and Yo-Yo Ma performing “Build a House”. I’m certain you can’t watch/listen just once. Gidden’s song (and signing) woven into a musical story with Yo-Yo Ma’s unrivalled cello playing is like a pair of human voices sharing a memories, maybe a constellation of memories, a heritage. But rather than quaking under the burden of this heritage, the voices sing, rising and falling, repeating almost playfully. This song invites the listener to join in the infectious lyrics, daring the listener to become active, to join the song, to join the lament, help carry the burdensome heritage.
This interpretation, mine and decidedly unacademic, to be sure, seems to be consistent with the fact that Ms. Giddens song is also a book. For children. For adults. For all of us. There’s an accessibility, an infectious accessibility that “Build a House” vibrates into existence that wraps us all in the embrace of the story, that asks us all to carry the song forward. Even those of us inclined to hastily adopt it as out own, even if it might not appear to be our own.
Here’s the song as a video walkthrough of the illustrated book.
So I finish, conflicted with why I feel so compelled with this song despite the painful lyrics, why the rhythm and energy and spirit of the song continue to embrace me even as I recognize my initial misstep. No conclusions yet. But I’ve decided to leave the reel and acknowledge it here, to examine it honestly. If I offend, please accept my apologies. But if I have possibly brought this important song to you, and if it has germinated within your psyche as it has within my own, then perhaps my decision is not in vain. I certainly hope that will be the case.
Update: We Become One
A fee days have passed since I shared this post, and I’m still unable to let it go. Today I received a subtle hint from the universe. I like to think of moments when life rhymes, when, for a moment, we hear the singing underneath. I’ve just had one of those moments. I received an invitation to attend the upcoming Christmas caroling “pop-ups” that will be performed in coming weeks by the Santa Fe Desert Chorale. And linking through to the website I watched a video that included Joshua Haberman, Artistic Director for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, talking about the power of chorale music. Specifically he was talking about lone individuals walking into Santa Fe Sings performances with a bit of trepidation because they arrived alone. But once inside, once the singing began, these individuals ceased to be alone. “Singing together we become one voice, one human family.” This struck me as the answer, or at least part of the answer, that I’ve been searching for. The power of music, especially music that invites us to sing or dance or sing-and-dance, is that it joins us together. We become one family.