DiFranco cancels Nottoway retreat

Online protest over plantation’s history led to cancellation

Online protests have led New Orleans-based singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco to cancel the songwriting and performing retreat she’d scheduled for June at Nottoway Plantation and Resort in White Castle.

The retreat’s plantation setting and its history of slavery drew a frenzy of angry Web posts over the weekend as well as condemnation from websites such as Jezebel and Change.org.

Jennifer Donald, guest services manager at Nottoway, said Monday that the resort’s general manager is out of the country but he will make a statement when he returns next week.

A performer long identified with social activism, DiFranco announced the cancellation Sunday via a lengthy statement posted on her website.

DiFranco’s response read in part: “I have heard you: all who have voiced opposition to my conducting a writing and performing seminar at the Nottoway Plantation. … My focus for the Righteous Retreat was on creating an enriching experience that celebrated a diversity of voice and spirit.”

Musician Todd Rundgren’s Toddstock II, an event similar to DiFranco’s canceled retreat, was held at Nottoway last June without protests. The antebellum mansion sits on 22 acres between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana’s sugarcane country.

Scot Fisher, DiFranco’s manager for more than 20 years, expressed surprise at both the intensity and speed of the reaction to her planned retreat at Nottoway. By last Friday, he said, the controversy burst into an online firestorm.

“Some of the comments on the web about Ani playing at the plantation were thoughtful but a lot of the comments were mean, really hurtful stuff,” Fisher said from Buffalo, N.Y., home base for the singer’s Righteous Babe Records.

“Ani has been a positive force for social change for 20 years,” Fisher said. “She is in the folk tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Odetta, bringing social issues to the music. Maybe she is a lighting rod because of that.”

DiFranco addressed the legacy of slavery at Nottoway in her online statement: “... I believe that one cannot draw a line around the Nottoway Plantation and say ‘racism reached its depths of wrongness here’ and then point to the other side of that line and say ‘but not here.’

“I know that any building built before 1860 in the South and many after, were built on the backs of slaves,” she added in the statement. “I know that in New Orleans, the city I live in, most buildings have slave quarters out back ... I ask only that as we attempt to continue to confront our country’s history together, let us not forget that the history of slavery and exploitation is at the foundation of much of our infrastructure in this country, not just at old plantation sites.”

DiFranco’s statement can be read in full at righteousbabe.com.

The singer’s Friday shows at the Varsity Theatre in Baton Rouge and Saturday at the House of Blues in New Orleans will go on as scheduled.