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Rhiannon Giddens Awarded Steve Martin Banjo Prize

Source: Rhiannon Giddens Facebook
Carolina Chocolate Drops founder Rhiannon Giddens was named the 2016 recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. The $50,000 award was established in 2010 and has been presented annually by a board comprised of Martin, J.D. Crowe, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Anne Stringfield, Noam Pikelny, Alison Brown, Dr. Neil Rosenberg and Béla Fleck.

Giddens is the first woman and first African American to win the award. In addition to performing with the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, she has also recorded a successful solo album that prominently features her banjo playing.

"Rhiannon Giddens occupies a unique position in the world of banjo music, bridging contemporary and traditional forms and the cultures of three continents," says the Steve Martin Prize website. "Few musicians have done more to revitalize old-time sounds in the last decade. Drawing from blues, jazz, folk, hip-hop, traditional African, Celtic, and jug band music, she has brought tremendous vitality and artistry to her live and recorded performances."

The website also notes Giddens' efforts to highlight "the banjo’s history as an African and an African-American instrument" and resurrect "black string band music for a new generation."

Giddens learned old-time music from North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson, one of the last remaining black traditional stringband musicians from the 19th century, a legacy the Carolina Chocolate Drops have sought to popularize. However, Giddens didn't start off playing this music. She studied opera performance at Oberlin College.

She met her future Carolina Chocolate Drops bandmates Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, Soon after, the trio began visiting Thompson to learn his repertoire, and then took the show on the road.

The band won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for "Genuine Negro Jig" in 2011. Her solo album "Tomorrow is My Turn" was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Folk Album in 2016.

It was through Giddens that I learned of the book Way Up North in Dixie, by Howard and Judith Sacks. Her devotion to the history of the banjo and old-time music is clear if you ever see her or the Carolina Chocolate Drops perform live. The Glory-Beaming Banjo wishes Giddens a hearty congratulations.

The New York Times also has a wonderful profile about Giddens winning the award that is well worth the read.

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