Music

Rhiannon Giddens Covers Alice Randall’s Jarring Tale of Lynching ‘The Ballad of Sally Anne’

When Alice Randall first sat down more than 30 years ago to write “The Ballad of Sally Anne” with Mark O’Connor and Harry Stinson, she wanted to use the murder ballad format to discuss a topic — lynching — that was never mentioned in country music.

“The ugliest fact of Southern life went missing from the country canon,” Randall tells Rolling Stone. “This erasure perpetuated a particular fraud…without addressing the ways in which Southern white lives across class lines and ages were involved in the terrorizing of Black families.”

“The Ballad of Sally Anne” was originally released in 1991 as a bluegrass tune sung by New Grass Revival’s John Cowan on the 1991 album The New Nashville Cats by Mark O’Connor. With its traditional melody and upbeat arrangement, casual listeners of O’Connor’s roots record might have missed the subversive story Randall was telling. “[The song] gets people who don’t want to think about lynching thinking about lynching,” she says, “and wondering in a new way what they think about their grandparents attending a lynching like it was a party.”

Randall has enlisted Rhiannon Giddens for a new version of “Sally Anne.” Dramatically reinterpreted by Giddens, it appears on Oh Boy Records’ My Black Country: The Songs of Alice Randall, a forthcoming tribute record to the songwriter and novelist that features a generation of younger artists like Allison Russell and Adia Victoria interpreting Randall’s songbook.

“I did the folk thing,” Giddens says of her cover. “Brought it into my time, my space, my emotions — so it morphed, it swirled, and suddenly Sally Anne came through my banjo.”

Randall was amazed when she heard what Giddens did. “When Rhiannon sings she is embodying Sally Anne herself,” says Randall. “It takes this song up another level — to sound as lived resistance.” 

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My Black Country, which will be accompanied by a memoir of the same name, arrives at a crucial moment, as Beyoncé’s foray into country and roots music has sparked conversations about the racial policing of genres in country music (Giddens also plays banjo on Beyoncé’s new country single “Texas Hold ‘Em”).

Randall is best known in country circles for co-writing Trisha Yearwood’s 1995 Number One “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl).” For her, Beyoncé’s country success — “Texas Hold ‘Em” debuted at Number One on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart — represents both a transformative achievement and another bullet point in the long history of Black cultural influence on country music. “She is going to do with this new album what Ray Charles did with [Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music],” Randall recently told The Washington Post.

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