Brilliant Songs #46: Rhiannon Giddens’ and Joey Ryan’s “At the Purchaser’s Option”

Every now and again an artist comes along who is seemingly hatched from a sky god who has incubated him or her for 500 years, carefully imbuing every last gene with wisdom, intelligence, beauty, enthusiasm, tenacity, curiosity, and a fundamental, overarching decency that makes their entire life a testimonial for the goodness of the human project.

At certain moments, we may experience these individuals as antidotes to whatever doubts and despair we harbor in the dark of our souls, little life rafts bobbing along in our psyche that we reach for through the storms of the world and our own thrashings of the night.

Rhiannon Giddens would likely crawl under a blanket of embarrassed protest if she heard herself described as one of those outsized, accomplished individuals, muttering something about just being a regular person struggling like so many millions of other people to raise a family, pay the bills and be useful to the world.

But that just suggests other key qualities possessed by the kind of persons described above: They tend toward humility and modesty—and from all indications, they’re not faking it. (While also working assiduously to cultivate the gifts they know have been placed in their hands.)

…the mother’s rhetorical lament, the ‘shall?’ question implying a human agency she knows she does not actually possess, because neither her nor her baby are legitimately ‘human’ in the eyes of the state or her master.

Giddens has those hands in so many projects that are playing to such wide acclaim in recent years that it’s easy to forget what a hard scrabble roadie she was for a good long while with her original group, formed in 2005 as the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The trio was based in Durham, just down the road a piece from Giddens’ hometown of Greensboro.

I had the good fortune of a musically informed buddy alerting me not to miss them when they came through my former home base of Sonoma County some 15 years or so ago.

It was one of those “Wow!” experiences that hit you unexpectedly between the eyes—unknown artists in a small venue just tearing it up with an astonishingly original, hard-to-classify set of string-jug-blues-black folk music, with heavy emphasis on Giddens’ much beloved banjo and opera-trained voice.

It seemed impossible that the group would not win fans by the bushel and become a smash. Sure enough, they later won a “Best Traditional Folk Album” Grammy in 2011 for their debut collection, “Genuine Negro Jig.”

That same year featured their opening for both Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal tour dates, and by the time the Chocolate Drops went their own ways in 2014, Giddens had established herself as a kind of cultural icon. She has only gained in acclaim since as she has further mined the history of the banjo and its role in deep-sinking the roots of America’s “traditional” music that owed such a debt to the human beings who had arrived on ships over hundreds of years, shackled.



Staunch in her devotion to highlighting the banjo’s role in black music and black music’s role as an original American music, Giddens also consistently reaches across time, race, genre and culture with disarmingly open hands.

Born to a black and Native American mother and a white father, she has welcomed musicians and audiences under an ever-expanding tent that has included the likes of the classical world’s Yo-Yo Ma, bluegrass’s Chris Thile, rock’s Elvis Costello, the now elderly pop crooner Tom Jones, and modern Italian composer, pianist and Giddens’ life partner Francesco Turisi.

Most recently, she lent her banjo and viola skills to Beyonce’s bombshell of a country music album, “Cowboy Carter.”

A 2017 recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant, Giddens won a 2023 Pulitzer Prize for her opera, “Omar,”  for which she wrote the libretto and shared the composing with Michael Abels. She has also written for ballet, documentary films and symphony orchestras, directed music festivals, produced radio programs, and added her soprano voice upon request to multiple ventures around the world.

In the midst of which she has recorded seven albums, two extended play albums and five singles since venturing out on her own in 2015.

Tellingly, she stepped back in a recent concert appearance I caught at UNC Chapel Hill to share the stage with a Native American chant group opening act, followed by a trio of black/Native American woman singers for whom she provided vocal or instrumental accompaniment in a strictly supportive role through much of the program.

A headliner who happily shares headlines: such a concept.

She did, however, step forward in that concert to reprise, among others, the song that will occupy the remaining discussion here.


Carolina Chocolate Drops, 2007


“At the Purchaser’s Option” was the lead song on the 2017 Giddens album, “Freedom Highway.” Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids duo is listed as co-writer, but I couldn’t find any evidence that he has ever recorded the song, which is so indelibly imprinted in Giddens’ wheelhouse by now that few have even attempted a cover. (Though the Kronos Quartet gives it quite the strictly instrumental once-over treatment, as only they can do.)

Multiple versions from Giddens, some with accompanying lyrics, are available on You Tube. I chose the one here without lyrics partly because her diction is so flawless that written lyrics aren’t much necessary for a good first listen.

Adding to that clarity is the tenor of the first-person story she embodies in such stark terms.

Giddens stares straight ahead, wincing occasionally with eyes closed, strumming her banjo with a barely pent-up emotion just this side of outrage.

And a richly justified outrage it would be: an enslaved woman, raped and impregnated and then, as blithely stated by her master’s short descriptive flyer advertising this “sale” of her body, the infant still at her breast is “At the Purchaser’s Option.”

Giddens came across the phrase while examining historical records from the time, and it brought her up short. And in the way of such things with creative artists, she made a memorable work of art from it.

Let’s give it a listen now, followed by the lyrics and then some concluding discussion.




I’ve got a babe, but shall I keep him?
‘Twill come the day when I’ll be weepin’
But how can I love him any less?
This little babe upon my breast

You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul
You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul

I’ve got a body, dark and strong
I was young but not for long
You took me to bed a little girl
Left me in a woman’s world


Day by day, I work the line
Every minute overtime
Fingers nimble, fingers quick
My fingers bleed to make you rich



I’ve got a babe, but shall I keep him?


Simple, really. Just three verses of four lines each, a recurrent, incantatory chorus, and then a dead-stop, one-line outro that reprises the first line. That line hones in on the mother’s rhetorical lament, the “shall?” question implying a human agency she knows she does not actually possess, because neither she nor her baby are legitimately “human” in the eyes of the state or her master.

It’s a raw and wrenching scene, almost too horrid to contemplate. And it is tempered only, if that is even possible to consider, by the mother’s defiant stand for the dignity that is due her, and which she insists is hers in all righteous indignation, despite the forces of commerce and state and unquenchable greed that are arrayed against her, at every turn of resistance she might take.

“Not my soul,” she states flatly, giving the devil his due of her bones, her body, her blood that he has taken simply because he can.

But her soul, that intangible, immaterial nothing that most defines her as something, a human thing? Hers alone, untouchable—because she can make it so, in all her strength and dignity, everlasting.



I will close with a recent podcast reflection from the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson—whose work was the subject of my first blog post here 11+ years ago. Along with the poet Christian Wiman and the host from Catholic cultural magazine “Commonweal,” she engaged the notion of providence and the faith that some higher power might yet be silently at work in a fractured world.

Her evidence? The surpassing accomplishments and beauty of human beings.

Wait—humans and their relentless warfare, their dictatorships, their enslavements and genocides and planet ruination?

Surely even the most generous divinity would long since have run out of patience as we thrash on and outwards with all our evils and imperfections, plain as day for even us to see?

And yet: Music and literature. Poetry and painting.

Rhiannon Giddens and Marilynne Robinson.

Yo-Yo Ma and Toni Morrison.

And let us give the staff of the World Central Kitchen its due—may their heroes recently perished on a bomb-pocked road in Gaza rest in peace. (A word for Alexei Navalny, as well.)

“I am very persuaded of the surpassing character of human beings—that somehow we exist in excess of the world that we physically exist in,” Robinson insists in her Commonweal conversation.

And then she concludes, in an ode that put me in mind of both her and Giddens as I engaged her music and life through this beautiful and tragic week past :

“All this brilliance, which goes so wrong, so often, but nevertheless it’s not there for no reason, it’s not nothing. Our strange passage through the life of this planet—it simply exceeds what can be described and extrapolated from nature at large. I think people are splendid even beyond their possible ability to articulate or recognize. And I think: that being true, we being so far ahead in excess of a creation that is already spectacular, I think we probably have God’s loyalty.”


“Genre-inclusive” would be one of many ways to describe Rhiannon Giddens, smoldering her way through this jazz/blues classic with the help of the Silk Road Ensemble, for which she assumed the role of artistic director in 2020 from its founder, Yo-Yo Ma.


Comments? Questions? Suggestions, Objections, Attaboys? Just scroll on down to the Comments section below. No minimum or maximum word counts!

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.

All 45 previous songs in this series are available here.

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Giddens headshot top of page by Ebru Yildiz, as featured by NPR

Giddens on banjo by WFUV Radio, Fordham University, New York City

Carolina Chocolate Drops by Zack Lee, Vancouver, Canada

Sidewalk flower by Andrew Hidas 

4 comments to Brilliant Songs #46: Rhiannon Giddens’ and Joey Ryan’s “At the Purchaser’s Option”

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Brilliant indeed! First off I love your “sidewalk flower picture”, I scrolled right past it I was so engrossed with the post until I saw the credit to you, went back, and “hung with it” a bit and found it to be a perfect fit for this post. Not only lovely in and of itself but a creative metaphorical comment on the post as well!

    Rhiannon Giddens is one of my very favorite artists/musicians/performers. I have been
    fortunate to see her 3 times, most recently with the Silk Road Ensemble performing American Railroad, incredible! For any Traversing readers curious about Giddens and her mind-boggling artistry I recommend this recent PBS interview with noted biographer Walter Isaacson:
    I am very psyched to see her again in a couple of weeks at the Fillmore in San Francisco
    performing with her Americana-style rock band!

    I also appreciated your including Marilyn Robinson, and her notion of humanity probably having “God’s loyalty”… not sure what that actually means but it stopped me cold… a recent interview w/Robinson by Ezra Klein (a top-notch interlocutor) was also interesting. I have never read the Old Testament (and doubt I ever will) but found her comments challenging my stereotyped version of the Old Testament’s vengeful wrath-filled God!

    Suffice it to say the post was another brilliant one, my friend!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’m generally of the mind that Giddens can do anything she sets her mind to, Kevin, and I will maintain that position until it is proven otherwise! Her Silk Road work is something else, just all over the musical map with magnificent collaborations, must be really fun to be a member. And her opera, “Omar,” was quite a feat as well—saw it last year when it came home to her old stomping grounds here after debuting with the L.A. Opera. And then that knock-it-out-of-the-park “St. James Infirmary,” whoa—I’m convinced she could make a fine living and reputation just being a torch singer and just killing those old jazz & blues standards. But she is made for bigger, broader things, and it will be (has been!) great to follow it along.

      Marilynne Robinson thinks from an avowed Christian mindset, which is always relational—Creator-created, God-human. So I think what she’s getting at is an ideal, or the Creator’s highest ideals of manifesting beauty and livability for all its creatures, despite the arduousness that comes with the package for all mortal things. But even with all humans’ failings, she’s saying we deserve no small credit for taking an essentially wild, untamed existence and laying a kind of beautiful order atop it—thinking, building, striving, imagining, creating, musing, loving to a rather dazzling degree. So in her view, that OUGHT to make a Creator proud and inspire some measure of regard for our efforts and accomplishments, however half-baked and even destructive some of them are.

      Hers is an essentially generous and forgiving view of human beings, very much in line with her writings and her conceptualization of the divine and its relationship with humanity. Which leads to this, it seems to me: if we think of God as that all-forgiving, generous, tender and creative force undergirding all existence, then it might be a good approach to try emulating that force, yes? Even if it doesn’t exist, because really, what better way would we want to live our lives? Her characters often wrestle with these questions in one way or other, always nuanced and sometimes weak and compromised, but she views them lovingly, as whole, round, albeit struggling human beings. I always come away from her work feeling better about humanity at large, but it’s never a cheap attainment!

      Hey, glad you enjoyed the foto and “got” the intent! The idea for using it just came to me unthinking, out of the blue, a gift—there’s that Creator playing around again!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    A myriad of wonderful adjectives to describe Rhiannon Giddens might not do her justice. I guess I’ll add my two cents worth: She’s damn good! While “At the Purchasers Option” may seem like a simple song, what it evokes emotionally is quite complex. Imagine a slaveowner looking a woman up and down like a customer picking out the best produce at a market. Imagine a mother having her newborn ripped from her breast to sustain the institution of slavery. Imagine the strength of this mother to move beyond this ultimate sorrow and never let it destroy her soul. Her music flawlessly captures the horror of this tragic moment. Combining the plaintive sound of the cello with a banjo, an instrument with a long history in black music, is so effective. It’s a perfect complement to her lyrics and voice. By the way, Ossawa Tanner, the son of a slave, painted “The Banjo Lesson” as a visual tribute to the banjo as a generational instrument of his people. Finally, I appreciate your addition of Giddens’ “St. James Infirmary Blues” to the blog. Her interpretation is smooth but lacks the grittiness of Louis Armstrong’s 1930 cut, which put “St. James Infirmary Blues” into the upper tier of classic jazz standards. Once more, thanks for the music.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks for the tip on the Tanner painting, Robert, wasn’t aware of it, quite wonderful, and for readers, a nice treatment of it here:

      Probably the thing I love most about You Tube is getting to compare song versions by different artists, or by the same artist in different venues and times. Such a prism a song can be, and the pairing of Rhiannon’s with Louie’s version of St. James is a great example of that prism, and a lovely musical experience unto itself!

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