Ever since hitting the folk scene with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens has been an exciting and unique voice. With the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens and company explored the African contributions to string band music; a form more commonly associated with hillbillies and bluegrass players. As a solo artist, Giddens continues to explore the African experience in America, mainly within an acoustic folk tradition.
Freedom Highway is a musical journey through the struggle for equality in the United States. Selections chronicle events from the antebellum plantations to the streets of Ferguson. This is a harrowing journey, marked by tragedy and resilience. “Purchasers Option” opens the album with a tale of an enslaved woman who has no control over the work she must do, no control over her body, no claim to the children sired by her owner, but who will never give up possession of her soul. This existential horror is also at the heart of “Julie”, a folk ballad that is a dialogue between a mistress and her faithful servant. The mistress turns to her slave for support in the face of the advancing Union soldiers. The slave, Julie, agrees to stay with her mistress but will tell the soldiers the truth when they arrive. The gold the mistress has came from the sale of her children.
Rhiannon renders the Nina Simone classic, “Birmingham Sunday” as a gospel ballad. The song is a sorrowful account of the infamous Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls. It’s a harrowing reminder that until recently, black lives really didn’t matter to certain Americans. The choirs keep singing of freedom, as we strive for a better world.
Our country has made progress since the bad old days of lynchings and that Sunday in Birmingham. “Better Get it Right the First Time” underscores that things haven’t changes as much we’d like to think. The song lays out the tragedy of all the young black men who have died needlessly in recent years. The slow burn funk number could be about anyone who finds themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Justin Harrington brings the story to today’s streets with a rapped verse about how a young (black) man can be doing the right things and still end up on the wrong side of someone’s stand your ground claim. The struggle continues.
The albums title track and closing number is the Staples Singers civil rights anthem, “Freedom Highway”. When Pops Staples wrote the song in the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights was in your face, in the streets and in the courts. The song is the embodiment of Pops comment to Dr. Martin Luther King that if he can preach it, they can sing it. Rhiannon brings the urgency of the Staples Singers classic up to date as a reminder that we’re still marching to secure our basic freedoms.
Freedom Highway is a powerful collection of songs. It’s a history lesson that needs to be heard. For those of us whose families haven’t lived the African American experience, it’s easy to think of things like slavery and Jim Crow as ancient history. Maybe if the folks who can’t get their heads around the notion that Black Lives Matter spent some time with this album, they might have more empathy. Rhiannon lays out that history in song and connects the dots between the slave market and the streets of Ferguson. It’s a part of our history. Freedom Highway, in at least a small way, will help us all understand that.