Do Music Biographies Really Enhance Our Musical Experience?

If [Rhiannon] Giddens were to tell us in a memoir that she’d been thinking about her own child when she sang, it would make the line a poignant narrative moment. But really, what would that reveal that we don’t know from her performance? It might risk drowning out other information we already have: Michael Brown’s mother in tears at a press conference last summer; Mamie Till choosing an open coffin for her son in 1955; Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot protecting his mother in an Alabama café in 1965, days before marchers massed in Selma.

A singer of mixed African American, Native American, and Caucasian ancestry, Giddens is occasionally asked in interviews to offer up a personal explanation for her connection to the music she sings. On NPR’s Morning Edition last winter, Renee Montagne asked, “I know you’ve recorded songs in Gaelic. Is that your tradition?” You could hear Giddens kind of sigh—OK, here we go. “That whole idea of, is it my culture—you know,” she replied, “it gets asked of me in a way that white people who do blues music don’t get asked. I don’t know all of my genealogy, but my point is that if music speaks to you, I think that you have the ability to do that.” And she’s right to push back; when she sings Scottish folk, audiences don’t need a genealogical chart to know they’re witnessing something extraordinary.

Sara Marcus, writing in The New Republic about how the immediacy of music always outlives and out-performs the effect of reading a biography, or viewing a documentary about a musician ─ a phenomenon she calls the “power of songs over their singers.” Marcus’s piece ran in August 2015.

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