The incomparable Rhiannon Giddens’ second solo album, Freedom’s Highway on Nonesuch Records, was released yesterday, February 24, 2017. Not only is this album timely for its release during Black History Month, it’s also a reminder of the struggle required to overcome oppression no matter what shape it comes in.
What Giddens has done on this collection of 12 songs, nine originals and three covers, is assemble a cultural/social/political history of African Americans in the United States. From slavery through the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the present day, she recounts through song and music, events and personal stories which have shaped this history. However, these aren’t just political songs, they make up an amazing collection that demonstrates the diversity of music that has sprung from this culture over the years.
There aren’t too many artists out there who can set themselves a task as complicated as this and not only achieve it, but do so in a manner where the artistic expression is equal to the content of the material. Musically, the album ranges from the soul/rap of the fifth song, “Better Get It Right the First Time”, to the country sounds of “The Angels Laid Him Away”, the disc’s second track (originally by Mississippi John Hurt). Combined with the New Orleans sound of “The Love We Almost Had”, the gospel “Birmingham Sunday”, and the near bluegrass rattle of “Following the North Star”, the album covers almost the entire spectrum of American music.
Of course, while the music is wonderful, the centrepiece of any Giddens record will always remain her voice. Her range, control, and expression are befitting someone who went from schooling in opera to playing in the old-time African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. She has the uncanny ability of being able to bring the listener into the heart of a song. Through her empathy and compassion we feel the myriad range of emotions she’s expressing.
This can make for some heartbreaking experiences. The opening track, “At the Purchaser’s Option”, is both a lament and a statement of defiance told from the view of a young female slave. Based on a old advertisement offering a young slave for sale and her nine-month baby, available at the purchaser’s option, the song brings the dehumanizing reality of slavery home with a vengeance. “I have 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”.
While all the songs on the album are wonderful, and no matter how many times you listen to it, you’re more than likely to hear something new and breathtaking each time – two of the three covers, “Birmingham Sunday” (written by Richard Farina) and the title track “Freedom’s Highway”, stand out. The former is about the terrorist attack on an African American church in 1964 that left four children dead during the height of the civil rights movement while the latter is a Staple Singers song from the same era about the need for perseverance in the march for freedom.
Giddens performs “Freedom Highway” as a duet with Bhi Bhiman, whose parents were born in Sri Lanka. Says Giddens: “America’s strength are her people, whether they came 4,000, 400, or 40 years ago, and we can’t leave anyone behind”. Maybe not a message some people want to hear, but a timely one all the same.
Freedom Highway is one of those amazing rarities, a politically charged and artistically refined album. The music is spectacular, the lyrics are beautiful and inspiring, and the singing is as glorious as you’ll hear anywhere. Giddens proves once again she is a force to be reckoned with – musically and otherwise.