Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway (2017)

Singing truth to privilege
Some protest music rants angrily over wrongs, but the best shines love on injustice, and thereby allows us to sense the horror of wickedness deep in our souls. There is something life giving and transformative when stories and names from the news and history, kept at a distance through long practice are made alive and real and full of dignity and significance, and brought into our hearts. This is a power that grew out of old spirituals, Americana folk roots music so profoundly human it whispers transcendence and a final reckoning even when the lyrics mention neither.

Rhiannon Giddens embodies this musical tradition beautifully, and on her second solo album, Freedom Highway, takes it to new heights.

Mama, dear mama, look in yonder tree
See that pretty little sparrow, a-lookin’ back at me
She can soar above the clouds, way up in the sky
She can fly away from here—why, o why, can’t I?

Daughter, dear daughter, I’ll tell you something true
Remember Granny Liza? well every night—she flew—
They tried to keep her down but there was nothing they could do

She could fly, she could fly
She could slip the bonds of earth and rise so high
She could fly across the river
Her spirit in her hands
Searching, always searching for the promised land
[from “We Could Fly”]

When I opened the lyrics booklet that accompanied Freedom Highway, the first image took my breath away. An advertisement from a 1797 newspaper is glued on the page. “FOR SALE,” the ad reads, “A remarkable smart healthy Negro Wench, about 22 years of age; used to both house work and farming, and sold for no fault but for want of emply. She has a child about 9 months old, which will be at the purchaser’s option.” The opening song is entitled, “At The Purchaser’s Option”:

I have a babe but shall I keep him
‘Twill come the day when I’ll be weepin’
But how can I love him any less
This little babe upon my breast

You can take my body, you can take my bones
You can take my blood but not my soul

Freedom Highway begins in the past, in the heart of the cruel slavery practiced in the early days of an America that supposedly believed that “all men are created equal.” Giddens does not leave the story there, but from song to song leads us across the decades to the present. “The album’s beauty and gravitas,” Jonathan Bernstein writes in Pitchfork, “come from how Giddens collapses the last two centuries of American history, juxtaposing songs about antebellum slave plantations with 1960s Civil Rights anthems and narratives of 21st-century state violence.”

Giddens’ voice is an instrument of rare beauty and finely honed practice, and the accompaniment on this album highlights its power. The final cut, and the title song is by Pops Staples, “Freedom Highway”:

March down freedom highway
Marching each and every day
March down freedom highway
Marching each and every day

Made up my mind, that I won’t turn around
Made up my mind, that I won’t turn around

There is just one thing
I can’t understand, my friend
Why some folks think freedom
Is not designed for all men

Freedom Highway is an album for our time, because the journey is not yet done. I am glad for the soaring reminder Rhiannon Giddens provides in this glorious music, filled with longing and pain and beauty, and a lovely, steadfast refusal to give up hope.

Don’t just buy a copy for your music library, but buy a copy for all your friends as well.


Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens (Nonesuch Records, 2017) Jonathan Bernstein in Pitchfork online:(