“Know thy history,” writes Rhiannon Giddens in the press notes for her sophomore effort, Freedom Highway. “Let it horrify you; let it inspire you.” The album—named for a civil rights anthem penned by Pop Staples—is awash with history, with stories carried down through bloodlines, at once ancient as the earth and as contemporary as today’s torments. For those who see their own stories in Freedom Highway’s laments, it will seem as if Giddens is content to gloomily reflect back to us our own experiences, but for those willing to see these songs as calls to action, the album is nothing short of inspiring.
The album is a neat flip on Tomorrow Is My Turn, the Carolina Chocolate Drops singer’s 2015 solo debut. That album features only one original composition, showcasing Giddens not just as an interpretive singer of tremendous vision and ingenuity, but also as a folklorist who’s able to dip into the well of American song and from it draw moral clarity for the present day. Conversely, Giddens has writing credits on nine of Freedom Highway’s dozen songs, but that’s not to say she’s tucked her folklorist’s tools in a drawer somewhere. Like Bob Dylan, Giddens has completely absorbed the language of the American folk song—from country-blues to jug-band anthems, from Pentecostal music to hip-hop—and even the original numbers here pilfer words, images, and ideas from traditional music. Every song on the album is abundant in these acts of love and theft.
Giddens’s depth of musical knowledge comes in handy throughout Freedom Highway, and not just for unearthing some of the roots of the old, weird American folk vernacular. She wrote these songs on the road with her touring band, and produced the set with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. They capture not just the energy of working musicians on the open highway, but the urgency of songs to speak to our present moment. The material here includes songs of mourning and songs of ascent, songs of protest and songs of freedom. These songs tell the kinds of stories Americans have internalized, told over campfires and shots of whiskey—the stories of our origins and our shared history, of the things we’ve never really gotten over.
That includes slave songs, like opener “At the Purchaser’s Option,” in which the narrator’s fingers have been worked to the bone, all in the name of someone else’s profit. But the album also includes songs that draw a line from slave days to the present. “Better Get It Right the First Time” mourns a man who tries to “stand his ground” and is brutalized for it. The song’s lament is bitter with irony: There’s nothing the man could have done to have “gotten it right,” nothing else he might have tried to save himself.
It’s to Giddens’s credit that she’s able to filter these songs through her own perspective without her star power outshining them—and, likewise, without being swallowed up by their own weighty sense of history. And it speaks to her and Powell’s light touch that these heavy songs land big gut punches without ever feeling oppressively bleak. In fact, the album is alive with energy and playfulness; after all, these musicians understand how uplift and tragedy are inextricably comingled on the spirituals that have influenced their work. “Better Get It Right the First Time” is tricked out with a funky horn section and a rap from touring band member Justin Harrington, while “Come Love Come” shimmies and sways with earthy electric blues. On songs like “The Angels Laid Him Away” and “Julie,” Giddens’s banjo is given room to breathe, to suggest the intimacy and romance of humming strings.
Church music is a touchstone throughout Freedom Highway. With its blaring horns and ratting tambourine, the title track is an aptly raucous closing song, but “Birmingham Sunday” is the album’s spiritual center—the kind of big, building piano anthem where a singer like Giddens can really shake the rafters. That song feels like the album’s dividing line; everything that proceeds it feels haunted, songs of ashen gray where the skeletons in our closet threaten to spill onto the floor. After “Birmingham Sunday” (named for the 1963 church bombing in the Alabama city that killed four black little girls), everything opens up to the mess and sprawl of our humanity. Giddens suggests that hope begins when we affirm ourselves in these stories—and when we look to our past with equal parts sobriety and resolve.