Rhiannon Giddens’ second album Freedom Highway fulfils the promise that has been evident since in her part in the first Carolina Chocolate Drops album back in 2006. Her debut album Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015), together with the Record Store Day Factory Girl EP, more than amply demonstrated her compelling ability to interpret a wide range of both covers (of songs originally performed, and mostly written, by women) and traditional songs, with just a glimpse of her emerging songwriting ability.
Freedom Highway demonstrates a coherent maturity that marries Rhiannon’s beautiful and powerful vocal interpretation with an equally compelling set of varied and, all too relevant, songs. It at one and the same time looks back to the, forever shocking, horrors of slavery and the struggles of the civil rights movement, but, at such a key juncture in American history, also articulates the contemporary black American experience.
The album was co-produced by Rhiannon and the unassuming but exceptionally talented Dirk Powell – here playing a ‘how does he do that’ number of different instruments. It was recorded at the Cyprus House, Dirk’s Breaux Bridge, Louisiana studio, in wooden rooms built prior to the Civil War. The recordings have an edge and intensity which you sense emerges, at least in part, from that historical location. The songs, composed mostly by Rhiannon (some with Dirk’s help), give voice to people whose voices were crushed in their own time and have highly significant meanings for the artist herself:
“It’s so personal. But it’s not just personal in the way that these are my stories. It’s personal in that … it’s a huge chunk of my soul.”
The opening song, At The Purchaser’s Option, puts us straight away into an almost unimaginable and raw reality which arises from an advert for the sale of a 22-year-old slave: “She has a child about nine months old, which will be at the purchaser’s option”. The first line – “I have a child but shall I keep him” – tells it like it is and the backing gives a sense of foreboding with muted, heartbeat like drums and a banjo refrain that conjures up time ticking away. Giddens made the link between past and present day slavery when she recently sang At The Purchaser’s Option at a fundraiser for an organisation that helps to free women who have been trafficked.
Julie, one of the songs Rhiannon previewed in her stint with The Transatlantic Sessions a year ago (see our review from 2016’s Celtic Connections show here), has been described by her as the focus for the whole work. She set out intentionally to address the absence of women’s stories – as she told one interviewer: “all the protagonists in the slave-narrative songs are women.” Starkly supported only by Giddens’ banjo and Powell’s fiddle, Julie tells of a women slave who refuses to protect the gold belonging to the slave owner when the Union troops are in sight. ‘Is it what you got when my children you sold?” Julie replies and then grabs the opportunity to be freed – ‘in leaving here, I’m leaving hell”.
When four Ku Klux Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama killing four young girls in September 1963, American folk-singer Richard Farina wrote the hard-hitting song, Birmingham Sunday, best known, until now, for Joan Baez’s version. Here, what had been a simple folk guitar arrangement, is transformed into a soulful and deeply dignified ballad, underpinned by a mournful piano and churchy organ. The church feel is completed with a fully convincing choir made up of band members and Rhiannon’s family. As she puts it in a video about the making of the album (see below), “we had people in there who don’t usually sing” – and they told her – “really, you want us to sing on this?”.
Better Get It Right The First Time has the most obviously contemporary story line, narrating as it does the story of a young black man who is pulled by peer pressure into ‘hanging with his boys’ and ends up being shot. We are left to assume from the song’s rap, from Rhiannon’s nephew Justin Harrington, with its’ reference to ‘obituary pages’, that the shot was fatal. This is, appropriately, the album’s most overtly angry track, reflecting as it does the necessity in the 21st century of the Black Lives Matter movement and the context of the absence of opportunity for a large proportion of young black men and the high numbers of them who end up dead at the hands of their peers or the police.
On Freedom Highway’s emotional roller coaster there are also songs of love (The Love We Almost Had), the longing of separated slaves who are lovers (Come Love Come) and optimism invested in those as yet unaffected by the realities of the world (Baby Boy). The musicians, Dirk Powell and Rhiannon’s touring band (herself on banjo), provide throughout a wide range of fitting, often almost upbeat, musical settings that intuitively underpin the themes of struggle and love in the songs. We can now add songwriting to Rhiannon Giddens list of considerable talents. Besides singing and playing the banjo, she is also now acting, appearing on the TV show Nashville as a young social worker – who you won’t be surprised to hear sings in the show (and, in case you were wondering, she danced, and was a dance caller, even before she started playing).
The final track Freedom Highway was written by Pops Staples in 1965 in the month after the bloody and deadly attacks by state troopers and white segregationists on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama and is the centrepiece of The Staple Singers album of the same name. Here the listener is left here in no doubt of the on-going need for resistance. Choosing Freedom Highway as the album’s title track was for Giddens, explicitly in the context of the outcome of the U.S. election, “about standing together and getting through this hard time”.
At this years’ Transatlantic Sessions Celtic Connections show in January, when Jerry Douglas introduced Dirk Powell’s solo slot, he made reference to Dirk’s role in this album, and then said that they had wanted Rhiannon Giddens to do a return feature artist slot again this year – this from a set-up that is predicated on having a different set of feature guests each time (she was busy with other things). She is that good, which is why you will struggle to find a ticket for her shows in the UK, Ireland and Europe later this month (thank you to my brother-in-law for getting mine!).
Freedom Highway is an important album and one I suspect we will be talking about in years to come. Let’s give the last word to Rhiannon Giddens:
“Know thy history. Let it horrify you; let it inspire you. Let it show you how the future can look, for nothing in this world has not come around before. These songs are based on slave narratives from the 1800s, African American experiences of the last century, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Voices demanding to be heard, to impart the hard-earned wisdom of a tangled, difficult, complicated history; we just try to open the door and let them through.”
Freedom Highway is available now on Nonesuch Records.
Rhiannon Giddens and band play London (Union Chapel, March 30), Cambridge (Cambridge Junction, March 31), Edinburgh (Queen’s Hall, April 2) and Dublin (Whelan’s, April 3)