Rhiannon Giddens Releases Companion Book to Her Single “Build A House”, Honoring Juneteenth 2020
Rhiannon Giddens’ tremendous 2022 continues today with the release of her book debut Build A House, illustrated by Monica Mikai and published by Candlewick Press. Build A House is a moving picture book that tells the story of an enslaved family that will not be moved, and the music that sustains them.
The picture book was inspired by and features the lyrics of a song that Giddens wrote and recorded with Yo-Yo Ma to commemorate Juneteenth in 2020, linked above. In a starred pre-publication review, Kirkus wrote of the book: “Giddens’ powerful, spare poetry, spanning centuries of American history, is breathtaking. Readers who discover her music through this book and the online recording will be forever glad they picked up this book. . . . A stunning, honest, yet age-appropriate depiction of historical injustice.”
A Triumph of Living Folk
The project is a triumph of living folk storytelling, and an inspiration for those of us working to bring our own families’ and lineages’ experiences to modern audiences through contemporary art. Giddens wrote on Instagram, “During the summer of 2020 I was struggling…not nearly as much as many people on planet Earth, but in my own small way I was at a complete artistic loss.”
“I was locked down in Ireland while protests raged across the United States after the murder of George Floyd, and I felt furious, despairing, impotent. My entire career has pulled from the contentious, difficult, at times brutal, at times beautiful history of the United States, and when you live amongst the rhythms of history the first thing you see is the unending repetition of the same few patterns. I was seeing 1640, 1735, 1898, 1969…and wondering if the character of the soft underbelly of this country, surrounded as it is by the technological and cultural innovations of the last few centuries, was ever going to change.”
She continues, “I did what I do when I don’t know where else to turn—I let the emotion and spirit and ancestral connection speak through me as best I could. “Build a House” was the result…that made me feel that maybe I could still add something to the conversation, that even locked down in Ireland I could add something to the American story. That song became the lyrics for my book.”
Honoring, and Transcending, History’s Cycles
By channeling this narrative into a contribution marrying historical context with a modern voice, Giddens does more than ‘add something to the conversation’; “Build A House” will create endless new ones. Giddens models what it means to create new storytelling traditions, and she gives us all the tools to document, educate, and actively engage in closing the cycles that plague all of our histories, in the most human way we have to transform them; through song and through poetry.
It’s also a hugely enjoyable and transcendent piece of art. To experience “Build a House” in all its forms is a privilege, and all of us who do can honor Giddens, her ancestors, and the story she spins.
Keep Up with Rhiannon Giddens
You can catch Giddens reading Build A House the book and performing this month: a community outreach book reading at The GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles on October 22, and at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum on October 13.
A newly recorded version of “Build A House” has also been released on Nonesuch, listen here: https://rhiannongiddens.lnk.to/buildahouse