Title: Freedom Highway
Artist: Rhiannon Giddens
Label: Nonesuch Records
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release Date: February 24, 2017
Rhiannon Giddens maintains a heightened level of excellence as a musician and activist songwriter throughout Freedom Highway, her second full album since Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015). Co-produced by Dirk Powell, Giddens presents nine original songs and three reimagined arrangements of civil-rights era and traditional music featuring guest performances by Bhi Bhiman, Lalenja Harrington and Leyla McCalla.
Giddens opens the album with “At the Purchaser’s Option,” sung in the first person about a woman facing the physical, mental, and spiritual magnitude of enslavement:
The album creatively and poetically addresses historical and contemporary forms of racial oppression in the United States. In “Julie,” Giddens sings a fearful ballad about the imminent separation between a maid and her white mistress by Union soldiers. The story reveals complex emotions as the maid reminds the mistress of how she sold away the maid’s children in order to produce the money the mistress re-gifts to her. The slow and sweet duet “Baby Boy” is a both somber lullaby and loving tribute to mothers who raise and protect the future “saviors” and leaders of mankind:
Baby Boy, young man, beloved
Don’t you weep, I will watch over you, I will stand by you
You will be, You will be, a savior
But until then
Go to sleep
From the darker themes of the electrically blue “Come Love Come,” to the funky precision of “The Love We Almost Had,” Giddens exhibits her eclectic and perfectionist talent down to the fine detail as a vocalist, banjo player, and bandleader. In “Better Get It Right the First Time,” she sings a soulful chorus of multi-harmonies as her band mate, Justin Harrington, performs a rap verse enhancing the traditional American roots music style. “Hey Bébé” differs significantly midway during the album, drawing on Cajun rhythmic and instrumental patterns.
“Birmingham Sunday” may perhaps be the most emotionally compelling song on the album. Originally written by Richard Fariña and performed by Joan Baez on a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Giddens suitably infuses the ballad of the Birmingham bombing of 1963 with a gospel style. She concludes with an instrumental banjo and bones duet on “Following the North Star” that leads into “Freedom Highway,” a soulful celebration of the fight for civil rights reminiscent of Aretha Franklin’s 1968 “Think.”
Rhiannon Giddens’ expertly produced Freedom Highway traverses the historical roots of racial unrest in the United States. Her work possesses an unwavering determination as she strives for accuracy connecting musical traditions with related contemporary genres to illustrate the deeply embedded patterns of racial oppression and resilience.
Reviewed by Jennie Williams