Title: They’re Calling Me Home
Artist: Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: April 9, 2021
Acclaimed African American folk musician Rhiannon Giddens and Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi offer their second collaboration, They’re Calling Me Home. Sheltering in Ireland during the pandemic, the two artists decided to draw from traditional folk music of three countries for this project. The album’s title not only speaks to those who are sheltering in place during the pandemic, but also to the metaphorical “call home” or “homegoing” of death, in tribute to those who have lost their lives due to COVID-19.
Unearthing hidden or unexplored musical traditions is a passion for Giddens, and she decided to return to some of the first old-time pieces she ever learned. Charley Patton first recorded the hymn “I Shall Not Be Moved” back in 1929, and during the Civil Rights Movement it became a popular protest song. Giddens’ version lies somewhere in between, using a minstrel banjo accompaniment with Turrisi adding accordion and percussion. The old-time fiddle tune “Black As Crow (Dearest Dear),” a heartbreaking song that’s sung at the deathbed of a loved one, certainly speaks to these times. Giddens and Turrisi darken the tone even further through the use of viola and cello banjo, with Emer Mayock adding a solo on Irish flute. The three artists also collaborate on “Waterbound,” an American folksong that has special meaning for Giddens since it addresses her current inability to return to her home state as she sings, “Waterbound and I can’t get home, down to North Carolina.”
The album’s title track was written by the late pioneering bluegrass musician and scholar Alice Gerrard, who was especially fascinated by “stark music and dark themes.” Giddens says, “‘Calling Me Home’ struck me forcefully and deeply the first time I heard it, and every time since.” Like “Black As Crow,” the song is a deathbed ballad, but instead of expressing sorrow there is overwhelming peace as “friends of yesterday” are “calling me home.” In the hands of Giddens and Turrisi, it’s one of the most poignant and emotional songs on the album. Death is similarly confronted in Gidden’s original song, “Avalon,” as well as her bluesy take on the classic folk-song “O Death.” On the latter, Giddens is accompanied only by a frame drum that effectively rattles like Death has he approaches the sinner who pleads, “O Death please consider my age, do not take me at this stage.”
Other highlights include the instrumental “Niwel Goes to Town” featuring Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu (who also appears on “Waterbound” and “Avalon”), the folk-song “When I Was In My Prime,” and the a capella duet in Italian, “Nenna Nenna.” Closing with “Amazing Grace,” Giddens hums the melody instead of singing, with counterpoint provided by Mayock on uilleann pipes and Turrisi on frame drum. This sparse arrangement lends an air of intimacy, like a private prayer.
For all of those longing for the comforts of home or mourning the loss of a loved one, this album will certainly strike a chord. Though addressing themes of death and longing, Giddens also focuses our attention on the joy of living, the necessity of holding loved ones in our hearts, and the comfort of a peaceful afterlife. They’re Calling Me Home is a hauntingly beautiful album with refreshing arrangements that breathe new life into these timeless songs.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss