Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
Vocalist and award-winning banjo picker Rhiannon Giddens has long shown an appreciation for African-American roots music, dating back to her time with Grammy-winning old-time string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Her newest solo offering, Freedom Highway (out Feb. 24), follows suit by focusing on the songs, sorrows, and spiritual victories of slaves.
Opening track “At the Purchaser’s Option” is based on a slave auction ad that lists acquiring a 9-month-old baby as optional for its mother’s new owner. Giddens, speaking from the mother’s standpoint, defiantly sings, “You can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood, but not my soul.” Putting faith and eternal matters ahead of the inhumanity of oppressors is a common theme, on this album and throughout the history of African-American songs of social protest and spiritual praise. That’s why the title track, a Staples Singers tune inspired by the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and Mississippi John Hurt’s “The Angels Laid Him Away” suit the album’s overall narrative despite being from a different time and place than most of Giddens’ other source material.
Giddens is as much a folklorist as a musician, not just keeping old sounds alive but giving them a historic and modern context. Still, it’s hard sometimes to tell if the struggles in these songs are happening on rural Antebellum farms or in modern cities. “Better Get It Right the First Time” tells of a young black man killed either by an abusive slave master or a rogue gunman. These muddied waters are a sad commentary on society repeating past sins, not a condemnation of Giddens as a storyteller.
Giddens won the 2016 Steve Martin Prize for banjo players, making her the first non-Caucasian to win the award in its seven-year history. In a modern context, it’s a promising sign of acceptance and diversity from bluegrass and folk communities that are probably written off by some as ole white boys’ clubs. Historically, Southern music was built on diverse influences. After all, the banjo came here from Africa and was co-opted from slaves. Racial and cultural diversity extends to other instruments associated with regional sounds, with steel guitars originating in Hawaii decades before it became the 50th state. For bringing new context to historic atrocities and reminding listeners of Southern music’s diverse origins, Giddens deserves more shelves of awards and accolades.