Rhiannon Giddens (photo by John Peets, PR)
Rhiannon Giddens is an immensely talented singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist with the instincts of a musical historian. On her second solo album, Freedom Highway, Giddens mines the historic and contemporary parallels of African-American experiences, nineteenth century slave narratives, and the Civil Rights movement.
Giddens is a founding (and only constant) member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-timey folk, country, blues and roots band. She's been part of numerous other bands and collaborations, including the Celtic group Gaelwynd and the New Basement Tapes, an ensemble organized by T Bone Burnett with Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford and Taylor Goldsmith. In 2015, Giddens released her acclaimed solo debut album, Tomorrow Is My Turn.
While most of Tomorrow Is My Turn was made up of Giddens’ interpretations of others' songs, Freedom Highway mostly consists of Giddens’ own songs. On this new collection, she expertly and powerfully tells the stories of those who could not and bears witness to their struggle.
In “At The Purchaser’s Option,” a spare and strong track, she takes on the persona of a slave who has been raped by her owner and left with his child. The song's refrain — "You can take my body/you can take my bones/you can take my blood/but not my soul" — defines the heart of Freedom Highway. Systemic racism and the brutal ramifications of slavery in America is a recurring theme in songs like “Julie,” set in the Civil War era, and “We Could Fly."
“Birmingham Sunday” delivers a chilling account of that Alabama city's 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 at the hands of four Ku Klux Klan members. This senseless, violent act of white supremacist terrorism resulted in the death of four young girls, ages 11-14, and injured over 20 other people. Giddens sings: “On Birmingham Sunday, the blood ran like wine, and the choirs kept singing of freedom.”
The album’s title track is a cover of the the Staple Singers’ memorable 1965 song, written by Pops Staples and a crucial Civil Rights anthem of that era. Giddens' version is a duet with Bhi Bhiman and it's an inspired choice, driving home the overall message of the entire album.
Freedom Highway is a musically diverse album, reaching towards different genres, from hip hop to jazz to folk. The midtempo funk of “Better Get It Right The First Time," which tackles racial profiling and police brutality, features Giddens' nephew Justin Harrington rapping on a pointed, heartwrenching verse. “Hey Bebe" marries jazz trumpet with Cajun rhythms (played on washboard) and “The Love We Almost Had" shimmers with NOLA soul. “Following The North Star" is a Celtic-inspired instrumental featuring banjo.
Giddens collaborated with producer Dirk Powell, an acclaimed fiddler and banjo player in his own right. Their choice to hatch the songs in spaces that pre-dated the Civil War lends authenticity to the album's sound and spirit.
Giddens’ Freedom Highway bridges this country’s dark past of slavery and persecution with its present struggles. Her songs also acknowledge the nation’s resilience and efforts to heal: to not repeat the same mistakes of those who came before us. At a time when Civil Rights, Black Lives Matter, voting rights, and systemic racism are very much part of the American dialogue, the arrival of Giddens' Freedom Highway is welcome, relevant and important.