Music Review: Freedom Highway

Spirituality & Health Magazine
reviewed by John Malkin

Freedom Highway

Rhiannon Giddens

Nonesuch Records

Freedom Highway is the new album of soulful Southern tunes by Rhiannon Giddens, who previously won a Grammy Award as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. These nine songs begin with a grounding beat on “At the Purchaser’s Option” that never lets up, immediately immersing us in a racial history that remains alive in the American present. Giddens explains in the liner notes: “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.”

This powerful second album from Giddens includes two civil-rights-era songs: “Birmingham Sunday,” layered with gospel-inspired harmonies, and “Freedom Highway,” originally recorded by The Staple Singers in 1965. The album was coproduced by Giddens and Dirk Powell in his Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, studio where most of the recording happened in wooden rooms built before the Civil War. Multi-instrumentalist Powell plays on most of the songs, offering piano, guitars, fiddle, vocals, and bass. Eighteen musicians all told grace these tracks, including Leyla McCalla on cello and Bhi Bhiman supplying vocals and electric guitar on the title track. The minstrel banjo picking by Giddens is magnificent and sets the mood, conjuring musical landscapes from Appalachia to New Orleans.

Track five, “Better Get It Right the First Time,” brings the past into the here and now by focusing on police violence against people of color and the contemporary civil rights organizing of the Black Lives Matter movement. Justin Harrington raps over the rhythm section while the horn section emits sharp jabs: “Young man was a good man / Did you stand your ground? / Young man was a good man / Is that why they took you down?”

Giddens adds in her liner notes, “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.”

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