Review: Rhiannon Giddens, 'Freedom Highway'
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"I was young, but not for long," sings Rhiannon Giddens in the voice of one of the characters she brings to bloody life on her second solo album, Freedom Highway. Actually, she wails the line – in grief, in defiance, and with the laser-deadly accuracy of a singer whose art is steeped in the subversive theatrics of Paul Robeson, the prophetic folk of Odetta and the psychological inquiries of Stephen Sondheim. Giddens is singing about a slave whose baby – conceived (her lyrics imply) in a forced encounter with an owner – may be taken from her at any time "at the Purchaser's Option," as the title says. But the lyric could also be about the America she reveals, mourns and challenges on this rich collection, the latest chapter in the 40-year-old master folklorist, banjo virtuoso and vocal powerhouse's epic retelling of our history with its sins and sorrows – and joy born of resilience – fully reinstated.
Freedom Highway follows Giddens's expertly curated and recorded Tomorrow Is My Turn, a mostly-covers album that honored the work of overlooked African-American artists like the soprano Florence Quivar alongside icons like Nina Simone. In her new work, Giddens speaks for the truly silenced: slaves; people murdered during the 1960s struggle for civil rights; young men felled by police bullets in city streets today. In "Julie," the chilling centerpiece of Freedom Highway, Giddens stages a dialogue between a domestic slave and her owner as the Union army sets upon a Southern plantation. Slowly, the song reveals that the love the white mistress professes for her maid is fatally compromised: she has sold Julie's children to another family. "When I'm leavin' here, I'm leavin' hell," Giddens intones, putting brutal stress on the word, showing the origins of white Americans' delusion about black oppression. The propulsive banjo and bass in the arrangement pegs this song as a murder ballad: one chronicling the murder of hope.
But hope comes back to life in Giddens' music. Her sound, grounded in folk, is carefully expansive, buttressed by a band of musicians expert in various folk idioms but always willing to experiment. On "Get It Right the First Time," her #BlackLivesMatter anthem, she explores her Destiny's Child side, and bandmate Justin Harrington adds a cutting (if tasteful) rap. "We Could Fly" is a delicate country hymn whose divinity remains powerfully African: it relates the myth enslaved people created, that in death their loved ones actually flew back to their homelands, in intimate terms. Giddens also makes room for love, that source of personal empowerment, in various shades – "Hey Bebe" is a Cajun romp, "The Love We Almost Had" a sinuous New Orleans dance number. That song was co-written by Giddens' fellow roots music adventurer Bhi Bhiman, who also proves a highly energizing duet partner on her rendition of the title track, from one of her main inspirations, the Staple Singers.
That great gospel family is central in the heritage Rhiannon Giddens revitalizes: the side of folk music that's not about singer-songwriters mulling over quirky confessions, but about excavating lost histories and preserving the crucial texts that form the people's secular gospel. It's a line that extends from Robeson and Woody Guthrie to Josh White and Odetta, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Steve Earle, and into hip-hop today, with artists like Common and John Legend. On Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens shows us that while America was never as innocent as some nostalgists want to believe, its young spirit still lives within, resistant to corruption, leading those who can hear its voice toward a better place down the road.
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