Once in a while there comes an album that is so musically perfect and so in tune with its times that you know on one listen that it is destined to be a classic. Such is Freedom Highway, the second collection that Rhiannon Giddens has released under her own name. Its songs are drenched in her country’s history while speaking directly to its troubled present. There is horror here, but inspiration too.

Giddens started out as a founder of the Old-Time revivalist band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, before branching out into a solo career with her album Tomorrow Is My Turn. I first noticed her glorious voice (but didn’t register her name) three years ago on ‘Lost on the River’, a standout track which she had arranged on The New Basement Tapes, turning a lyric discarded by Bob Dylan Giddens into intense gospel.

Raised in Piedmont, North Carolina, daughter of a white father and black mother who, when they decided to marry, had to go to another town to get a licence, Giddens studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory before returning home to immerse herself in the rural musical traditions of her home state. She remains a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the dance band she co-founded in 2005, whose mission was to rediscover the personal histories and historical narratives – black and white – in folk and country music, blues, and early jazz.

The first album released under her own name, Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015) was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who had been knocked out by Giddens’ show-stopping performance of Odetta’s ‘Waterboy’ at the Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis show he curated in New York in September 2013. This CBS documentary from January 2016 tells how that performance – ‘a musical explosion on stage’ –  led to Burnett’s offer to produce a solo album, and to a dramatic change in the trajectory of her career.

The resulting album was as steeped in history as is her latest. Giddens’ feminist tribute to the women who had cut a trail through American music, Tomorrow Is My Turn featured songs from genres as diverse as gospel, jazz, blues, and country, and included works written or performed by a wide variety of female musicians, including Dolly Parton, Geeshie Wiley, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Patsy Cline, Nina Simone – and Odetta’s ‘Waterboy’ which the NPR reviewer described as ‘landing its message of enforced labour like a hammer.’

The title track was the spark for the project: originally the theme to a 1962 film about French prisoners of war during World War 2 sung by Charles Aznavour,  it was reclaimed by Nina Simone as an expression of both determination and rage. Giddens tipped her hat to Simone with a dynamic reinterpretation of the traditional Appalachian folk song that Simone made her own:

Now, on Freedom Highway, recorded as Donald Trump campaigned to ‘make America great again’, Giddens summons the ghosts of her country’s history, including songs based on slave narratives as well as urgent songs that draw a line from the days of slavery and speak to the present moment: songs of mourning and songs of ascent, songs of protest and songs of freedom.

freedom-highway

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 and headlines from streets of Ferguson and Baltimore today. 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.
– Rhiannon Giddens

Unlike Tomorrow Is My Turn, for which Giddens wrote just one song, on Freedom Highway she has written all but three of the songs – the Staples Singers’ 1965 title track, a blues by Mississippi John Hurt, and a stunning cover of Richard Fariña’s ‘Birmingham Sunday, best-known from Joan Baez’s recording. She also co-produced the album, with the bulk of recording done in wooden rooms in Louisiana built prior to the Civil War, assembling a terrific bunch of musicians, including her own touring band, local musicians from the bayou, a soulful horn section from New York, and talented family members.

The album opens with ‘At the Purchaser’s Option’, a song inspired by an advertisement for a slave that Giddens had found:

Last year I came across an advertisement from the 1830s for a young woman. Thinking about her, and how she had to maintain her humanity against horrific odds inspired this song named for the end of the ad: ‘She has with her a nine-month old baby, who is at the purchaser’s option.’

In the lyric it is as if Giddens has entered the soul of the unknown woman in the advertisement. The song is both terrifying in its intimations of brutality and racism – and uplifting:

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

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

Three songs form the heart of the album; separated by a century of slavery,  segregation and discrimination, ‘Julie’ is a dialogue between a domestic slave and her owner as Union soldiers arrive at a Southern plantation, ‘Birmingham Sunday’ tells of the 1963 Ku Klux Klan church bombing in Alabama, while ‘Better Get It Right the First Time’ is Giddens’ Black Lives Matter anthem.

Aaron Douglas, The Judgment Day, 1939
Aaron Douglas, The Judgment Day, 1939

Giddens wrote ‘Julie’ after reading The Slaves’ War by Andrew Ward, a history of the Civil War that draws on hundreds of primary and secondary sources to recount the war from the perspective of a the slaves. One of the stories told of a conversation between a woman and her slave as the Union Army was set to liberate her plantation. Slowly, the song reveals how fatally compromised is the love the white owner professes for her maid: the riches she urges Julie to take she gained by selling Julie’s children to another slave-owning family. ‘When I’m leavin’ here, I’m leavin’ hell,’ are Julie’s parting words, sung by Giddens with a brutal stress on the final word. Perhaps no song has so exposed white Americans’ delusions about black oppression. Giddens adds:

And it struck me really forcibly hard – that idea of the complicated relationship between the owners and what they thought of as their property, but were actually in so many ways their family. It just really struck me how in the institution of slavery … no matter how it seems like one group of people wins, everybody loses.

With Giddens’ own minstrel-era banjo and Louisiana musician Dirk Powell’s fiddle accompanying her as she takes the voice of the slave, the song offers no justice, only a sense of unimaginable hurt.

‘And the choirs keep singing of freedom.’

Church music is a touchstone on Freedom Highway. Gospel tones are present on the title track with its blaring horns and rattling tambourine, but ‘Birmingham Sunday’ is the song on which the album turns and has its spiritual centre. It opens here with a big, hymn-like piano overture before Giddens sings of the four black girls murdered in the bombing with a passion that sends shivers down my spine. It seems both desperately sad and anger-making that this story can seem so relevant fifty years on. The shooting, in June 2015, by white supremacist Dylann Roof of nine people, all African Americans, including senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina can’t have been far from Giddens mind when recording.

The arrangement builds steadily towards a fierce and resolute conclusion, emphasised by the fact that Giddens has made a crucial alteration of the words in the last verse: instead of the resignation of the original lyric’s ‘I can’t do much more than to sing you a song/I’ll sing it so softly, it’ll do no one wrong’, she offers the affirmation and hope with ‘We’ll sing it so loudly, you’d better sing along.’

rhiannon-giddens

‘Better Get It Right the First Time’ completes the trio of songs that provide snapshots of black oppression separated by a century or more. Clearly intended as a Black Lives Matter anthem, it tells the story of a ‘young man who was a good man, always went to school’ that might be told on the streets of Ferguson, Miami or Los Angeles, or any of the cities where young black men have been shot down by police. He might be Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling – or numerous others. The track features a funky horn section and a rap from Giddens’ band member, Justin Harrington.

The album’s beauty and gravitas come from how Giddens collapses the last two centuries of American history, juxtaposing songs about antebellum slave plantations with 1960’s Civil Rights anthems and narratives of 21st-century state violence.
– review by by Jonathan Bernstein, Pitchfork.com

What makes this album particularly successful is that whilst it comprises songs concerned with the inhumanity and injustice at the heart of America’s history, it manages to never feel oppressively bleak. In fact, the album is alive with energy and a raunchy playfulness, suggesting how joy and tragedy  are commingled in the black American experience and in the varieties of black music that have influenced her work. The electric blues of ‘Come Love Come’ shimmies and sways, while on songs like ‘The Angels Laid Him Away’, ‘Julie’ and ‘Baby Boy’, Giddens’s banjo comes to the fore.

‘Baby Boy’ is a mother’s lullaby to her baby boy who will be ‘a saviour’, the son who she will watch over as a young man ‘while you lead our people to the promised land.’  Giddens co-wrote the song with her sister, Lalenja Harrington, who shares vocals as they sing, ‘Beloved, I will stand by you.’

After her debut album for which she wrote just one song, on Freedom Highway Giddens is at the top her game in songwriting as well as mucianship: her lyrics, with their forceful narratives, interpersonal drama and emotional depth, are arresting: the exchanges between slave and mistress on ‘Julie’, the stomping tale of unrequited love in ‘The Love We Almost Had,’ and the life she breathes into the words of the old slave advertisement in ‘At the Purchaser’s Option’.

Without doubt, the album’s most joyous numbers are the rousing title song and the exuberant New Orleans zydeco of ‘Hey Bebe’, which features spirited trumpet from Alphonso Horne. Giddens co-wrote the song with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, who also co-produced the album with her. She says:

This song was inspired by listening to a whole lot of early Creole music star Amédé Ardoin. I only had one verse when I went to record Freedom Highway with Dirk Powell down in Louisiana – he helped me finish the lyrics and here we are! The bass, drums, and stand-up bass were recorded all in one room … and Alphonso Horne added his genius trumpet to it all, as well as Desireé Champagne on rubboard.

Perhaps the most affecting example of songwriting in the collection comes with  ‘We Could Fly,’ dressed musically as a 21st century spiritual. It sounds like a song that’s always existed, that been sung for a century or more, with its story – told by a mother to her daughter – of how, in the days of slavery, some like her grandmother believed they could fly. Uplifting in every sense, the song’s metaphor speaks of a people’s unending search for freedom. Giddens has convincingly tapped into the African-American tradition to produce a song that might have been written in 1861, 1963 – or 2016.

The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton
The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton

Listening to ‘We Could Fly’ I was reminded of something. It was days before I could put my finger on what it was: the song brought back memories of reading a book with my daughter when she was seven or eight years old:  The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. Drawing on African-American folklore, Hamilton’s book told of people who come to believe they can fly out of slavery and be free because one slave who told them that their tribe in Africa could fly.

They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic.

After being taken in slavery, ‘The folks were full of misery, then. … So they forgot about flyin’ when they could no longer breathe the sweet scent of Africa.’ But, despite their imprisonment, there are some who still remember the secret magic, and just wait for an opportunity to use it.

She flew clumsily at first, with the child now held tightly in her arms. Then she felt the magic, the African mystery.

As in Rhiannon Giddens’ song, in Virginia Hamilton’s wonderful children’s story flying is an analogy for many things: escape from slavery, hope of redemption, and memories of lost African traditions and culture.

Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936
Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936

Hamilton was probably drawing upon the work of Glenda Dickerson – writer, theatre director, folklorist – who, in an essay entitled ‘The People Who Could Fly: Slavery, Stereotypes, Minstrelsy and Myth’, wrote that the myth was probably dreamed up to counter a different myth: that black people were inferior, and that they should accept their fate. The myth of the ability to fly came to symbolize the will to escape bondage and ‘fly home’ –  if not physically, at least spiritually from the dehumanizing effects of slavery.

Like the story I read with my daughter, Rhiannon Giddens’ poignant song manages to convey hope, resourcefulness, and pride – possibly the only things that enabled  an enslaved people to survive – while at the same time acknowledging the unforgivable losses and heartbreak that is the African American experience.

Mama, dear mama, come and stand by me
I feel a lightness in my feet, a longing to be free.
My heart it is a shaking with an old, old song
I hear the voices saying, ‘It’s time for moving on.’
She took her mama by the hand,
They rose up in the air
They held each tight and then
They flew away from there.

The album closes on a high note with Giddens’ rousing version of Freedom Highway by one of her main inspirations, the Staple Singers. In her sleeve notes, Giddens states:

I am a daughter of the South; of the white working class, of the black working class; of the Democrat, and the Republican; of the gay, and the straight; and I can tell you one thing—we are far more alike than we are different. We cannot let hate divide us; we cannot let ignorance diminish us; we cannot let those whose greed fills their every waking hour take our country from us. They can’t take U.S. from US—unless we let them. I recorded this with Bhi Bhiman, all-American singer-songwriter from St. Louis, whose parents are from Sri Lanka. America’s strength are her people, whether they came 4,000, 400, or 40 years ago, and we can’t leave anyone behind. Let’s walk down Freedom Highway together. Written by Pops Staples in 1965.

rhiannon-giddens

This is a truly great album, one that revitalises the great gospel heritage represented by the Staples Singers, stirring it into a gumbo with ingredients from a host of other American musical traditions – black and white together – from folk and bluegrass, via jazz and blues, to funk and rap. In addition she’s excavated lost histories, demonstrating their relevance to the issues and divisions of today. There couldn’t be a more timely collection.

March down freedom highway
Marching each and every day

Made up my mind that I won’t turn around
Made up my mind that I won’t turn around

There is just one thing
I can’t understand my friend
Why some folks think freedom
Is not designed for all men

There are so many people
Living their lives perplexed
Wondering in their mind
What’s gonna happen next

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4 thoughts on “Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

  1. And this is powerful too

    The folk singer accompanied the release of a new album with a workshop for convicts and a show at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y.

    1. Excellent, Mike – many thanks for alerting us to this. Reading about Giddens’ work with inmates, listening to her album, watching Moonlight and Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, and just starting to read Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, I’m struck by the contrast they make with Trump’s America – and the sense, perhaps, of a new black renaissance comparable to the 1960s or the 1930s.

  2. Gotta say, I came across Rhiannon just over a year ago via The Prairie Home Companion and Garrison Keillor and since then she’s become one of my alltime favorite singers right next to Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. I saw her live last Spring and it was a blessing.

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