The Timelessness and Modernity of Amythst Kiah

inArtist Storyon May 18, 2021

By Gabi Mendick

Chattanooga-born musician Amythyst Kiah is simultaneously rooted in tradition and steeped in modernity. She speaks more to the living history of American music than any other artist I know of. Her songs trace generations of culture passed down and sometimes passed over, and her voice poetically, anthemically reclaims every part of her own identity and history. It is only fitting that Amythyst is a part of the 2021 Freight Train Blues series honoring the life and legacy of Elizabeth ‘Libba’ Cotten. 

I don’t pass the test of the paper bag
’Cause I’m black myself
I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me
’Cause I’m black myself
You better lock your doors when I walk by
’Cause I’m black myself
You look me in my eyes but you don’t see me
’Cause I’m black myself

It’s no surprise that her song “Black Myself” was nominated for a 2019 Grammy for Best American Roots Song. It will stop you in your tracks, knock the wind out of you, and then lift you right back up again. 

I don’t creep around, I stand proud and free
’Cause I’m black myself
I go anywhere that I wanna go
’Cause I’m black myself (black myself)
I’m surrounded by many lovin’ arms
’Cause I’m black myself (black myself)
And I’ll stand my ground and smile in your face
’Cause I’m black myself”

In her performance for Music Maker’s Freight Train Blues series, set to stream this Friday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, she stands in front of a brick wall displaying framed photographs of the great Piedmont blues player Elizabeth ‘Libba’ Cotten with a banjo in her hand and a wide smile on her face. And that lyric reverberates: “I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me/’Cause I’m black myself.” 

Amythyst herself first got in touch with old-time music at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee, learning from contemporary players such as Alison Krauss and Bruce Molsky and replicating their versions of songs. “I lived in east Tennessee my whole life. I grew up in Appalachia, but I grew up in the suburbs,” she says. “I didn’t really get in touch with old-time music until I moved to Johnson City, which is a significantly smaller town, and it’s further into the mountains than Chattanooga is, which is where I grew up.”

Bluegrass, country, old time — all the musical styles that heavily feature the banjo — have been historically dominated by white musicians. But many are unaware that the banjo originated in West Africa and was brought to the Americas by enslaved people, long before the likes of Earl Scruggs (b. 1924), Steve Martin (b. 1945), and Bela Fleck (b. 1958). As the banjo was adopted by styles of music dominated by white people, it became disconnected from its history.

Going back to Amythyst’s time at ETSU, one professor in particular initially redirected Amythyst to dig deeper and to explore field recordings, changing the way that Amythyst listens, writes and understands her role in the context of musical history. 

It was incredible because it was showing this ongoing legacy of the power of American music, all of the different artists that these songs have touched,” she says. Today, Amythyst says she is most inspired by artists such as Rev. Gary Davis, Libba Cotten, Etta Baker, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. She doesn’t simply study and replicate the songs of these legends, she forms her own interpretations, which inspire her songwriting.  

The reclaiming of the banjo by African American musicians is one reason why both the music and imagery from “Songs of Our Native Daughters” are so impactful. The 2019 release by Our Native Daughters, the supergroup featuring Amythyst along with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell, includes the original recording of Amythyst’s hit song “Black Myself.” The album art features a photograph of these four women of color proudly holding their banjos. These musicians as a group, and individually, bring true stories of American history and music to the forefront. 

Amythyst tells a story, one that spans from her childhood to her adult studies of field recordings, about the miracles found by unearthing links between the present and past. 

“You can even look at an artist like Moby, he’s an electronic dance musician, but he took the Lomax collection and picked songs, sampled them, and then created dance songs out of them like ‘Natural Blues,’ which is one of his more famous ones, taking the recording of Vera Hall.” she says. “I didn’t know who Vera Hall was until my early 20s when I was doing some research in the Library of Congress online, and I came across this song ‘Trouble So Hard.’ I remembered that voice [from] when I was a kid and I heard ‘Natural Blues.’ When I heard that voice 10 or 15 years later as an a capella field recording, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing.’ It just goes to show the power of this music, the timelessness of it. It touches people from all walks of life.” 

But when you watch Amythyst’s streamed performance this Friday, you wouldn’t suspect that when she first started performing, Amythyst felt out of place on stage.

For a long time I really didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere,” she says. “I’m just a person on this island, like an alien who doesn’t belong on earth.” It’s one thing to wrestle with your identity on a personal, inward level, but reconciling that with what you present to the world or to a crowd of strangers is another beast. At that time, Amythyst was playing in towns across the South, in front of audiences that were mostly white and conservative. “I felt like I had to really censor myself and keep a certain part of my personality at bay,” she says, “because I was concerned that I wasn’t going to be accepted and wasn’t going to get gigs.” 

But over the past few years Amythyst has discovered that opening herself up has actually produced new professional opportunities. 

“A lot of people think of Appalachia as being one thing, and what I’m seeing as I travel is that there are so many different, amazing places,” she says. “There’re so many awesome places in Appalachia where artists and free-thinking people can really express themselves, and there are people coming out to the shows. It’s been great to know that I can be myself and, in fact, gain more of an audience.” 

“I’m a Southern, Appalachian, Black, queer woman, solidifying my identity as a person and as a musician.”

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