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Rhiannon Giddens gives shout-out to Warren Wilson professors at Big Ears Festival

Today Warren Wilson celebrates the release of Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter,” a country album that features Rhiannon Giddens on banjo.
On Sunday, Rhiannon Giddens gave a shout-out to Warren Wilson professors Kevin Kehrberg and Jeffrey Keith during her performance at Big Ears Festival with the Silkroad Ensemble. Rhiannon Giddens is a Grammy Award-winning musician, MacArthur “Genius” recipient. She won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her opera “Omar.” Giddens celebrated that the ensemble’s “American Railroad” project emerged, in part, from the impact of “Somebody Died, Babe,” an article Kehrberg and Keith published in the Bitter Southerner.
“So there’s a piece of scholarship that became an essential theme for me throughout the creation of the railroad project, and I read about it on The Bitter Southerner. It’s by Kevin Kehrberg and Jeffrey Keith, and it’s a bit of scholarship that really inspired me a lot throughout this process of finding a tune that’s been very much a part of the bluegrass scene. I had never heard anyone except white musicians do ‘Asheville Junction’ or ‘Swannanoa Tunnel’ and then these intrepid intellectual explorers traced it back to actually a cave-in that affected African American convict laborers of the tunnel that connected North Carolina to Tennessee. And they found a recording, the only known recording of a Black man singing that song. I listened to that recording and it burrowed into my soul and that song became, not our theme song, but a spiritual thread for me. I wanted to mention them because a lot of time the people doing that work don’t get the claps and the flowers, but if they don’t do what they do, I can’t do what I do.”
Kevin Kehrberg and Jeffrey Keith are pleased to announce that they’ve signed a book contract on this topic with UNC Press. Their book “Song of the Unsung” will discuss the tunnel, the song, and the workers who made both. In the meantime, they will be in the Swannanoa Valley, writing and teaching at WWC. This summer, Kehrberg will teach music at the Swannanoa Gathering, and Keith will teach a class on Swannanoa Valley history as part of WWC’s Mountain Institute for Lifelong Learning.