new music: acclaimed folk singer rhiannon giddens weaves the threads of history into an impressive tapestry on ‘freedom highway’ #soundcheck

March 15, 2017

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate record to feature on International Women’s Day than Rhiannon Giddens’ latest solo record Freedom Highway. The acclaimed folk singer and music historian focuses her lens squarely on the history of the struggle of black women in America. Leading with the heartbreaking “At the Purchaser’s Option,” which takes its name from an advertisement for a 1797 slave sale. The song imagines the perspective of the 22 year old woman, whose 9 month old child could be included in the sale if desired. It’s a perfect and heartbreaking opening for an album that expertly draws the threads between points on the history of the struggle for justice. It does what folk songs do at their best; it states without stating that this is how we got where we are now.

The album mixes eras, sounds, and styles in a way that makes the best use of Giddens’ love of music history. A Staples Singers song here, a gospel number there; zydeco, hip-hop, and soul meld with the bluegrass on which Rhiannon Giddens made her name. Particularly on the standout “Better Get It Right the First Time,” where the wide range of sounds melds into something all its own. The song lays out clearly the stakes that when the police are entitled to act as judge, jury, and executioner, you better get it right the first time.

Elsewhere, it’s the traditional songs where Rhiannon Giddens sounds most at home. The original banjo tune “Julie” depicts a conversation between a slave and her mistress at the end of the Civil War. The song upends the false narrative of the faithful slave, shining light on the coercion, fear, and anger at the heart of that relationship by the chilling reveal at the end. The timeless country blues original “We Could Fly” finds a mother telling her daughter about the indomitable grandmother “searching, always searching for the promised land.” It’s these moments where Rhiannon Giddens finds hope for the future by looking to the past. Through her narratives of the black women throughout American history who faced impossible choices and continue to face impossible choices, she points a way forward.

”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

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK contributor

Photo by Dan Winters