Album Review of "Freedom Highway" by Rhiannon Giddens
Does Rhiannon Giddens Avoid the Sophomore Slump?
Second albums can be tricky, especially if they follow a critically-acclaimed first album. Such is the case with Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens' highly-anticipated second solo album. Join host Bobby Waller for the inaugural episode of the What's This Album About? album review podcast.
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Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens
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Album Review: Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens
Did Rhiannon Giddens Avoid the Sophomore Slump?
This is a transcript of Ep. 1 of the What's This Album About? Podcast - listen here
Welcome to What’s This Album About?, the podcast that looks at lyrics and finds the meanings behind new musical releases as well as vintage albums. I’m Bobby Waller, and this episode is about Rhiannon Giddens’ new album, Freedom Highway.
♪ March down freedom highway…
Freedom Highway is Giddens’ second album, so we’ll be looking at whether she managed to avoid the sophomore slump—a good question in Giddens’ case because her first solo album was 2015’s highly heralded Tomorrow Is My Turn.
♪ Tomorrow is my turn…
Produced by master of sound T Bone Burnett and featuring performances by some of the most accomplished studio musicians in the Americana industry, Tomorrow Is My Turn generated unbridled praise and was described in Rolling Stone as “a solo coming-out party, displaying Giddens’ ability to reanimate traditional music in her own nuanced image.”
It was a great way to start a solo career, to be sure. But can Giddens’ second album hold up to the hype of her first album? To answer this question, let’s look at how 2017’s Freedom Highway is both similar to and different from 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn.And let’s begin with the similarities.
♪ March down freedom highway, oh yeah, marchin’ each and every day
Freedom Highway, like all of Giddens' past projects, including the work she did as front-woman of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, is at least partially curatorial. Giddens almost as much a musical historian as she is a performer. Both Tomorrow is My Turn and Freedom Highway include covers of nearly forgotten songs that Giddens has revived and re-interpreted—such as the title song from Freedom Highway, which we’re hearing right now, a remake of a song by the mid-20th century gospel/civil rights group, the Staple Singers.
Freedom Highway also includes this cover:
♪ Hey Miss Collins ain’t it hard
To see young Louis in that old graveyard
Angels laid him away
The traditional song called “The Angels Laid Him Away,” which is often associated with blues great Mississippi John Hurt. And this cover:
♪ Come ‘round by my side and I’ll sing you a song
I’ll sing it so softly, it will do no one wrong
This is “Birmingham Sunday,” which Joan Baez released in late 1963 to memorialize the six children who were killed when a white terrorist bombed the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15th of that year.
Like Tomorrow Is My Turn, Freedom Highway breathes new life into old songs and gives a voice to people whose experiences have long been under-represented in historical narratives—particularly African-American’s and women. And, as you can hear, she does so with incredible grace. In a folk world that has so frequently touted the ironic beauty of the un-beautiful (think of Dylan’s voice, for example),
♪ Frog went a-courtin’ and he did ride…
Giddens stands out as a sincere creator of genuinely beautiful and well-executed music. That’s something that definitely has not changed.
But now, let’s look at what has changed.
♪ Hey bébé, don't you turn away
I see three major ways that Freedom Highway is different from Tomorrow Is My Turn.
One is that Freedom Highway has far more originals on it. Seven of the album’s ten tracks were written or co-written by Giddens, and that is a significantly higher percentage of originals than we find on any of Giddens’ other albums.
By the way, the song we’re listening to right now—“Hey Bébé”—is a Giddens original, and it is decidedly the most jubilant song on the album… which leads to the second characteristic of Freedom Highway that I think distinguishes it from Giddens’ past works.
Freedom Highway is Giddens’ most somber work to date.
♪ I’ve got a babe, but shall I keep him?
According to Amazon.com’s popularity ratings, this is the most popular song on Freedom Highway. It’s called “At the Purchaser’s Option.” Giddens wrote it after reading the following newspaper advertisement from the 1830s: “For sale: A remarkable, smart, healthy negro wench, about 22 years of age, used to both house work and farming and sold for no fault but want for employ.” Disturbed by this cold description of a human being as a piece of merchandise, Giddens states on the website for Freedom Highway’s label, Nonesuch Records, “Thinking about her and how she had to maintain her humanity against horrific odds inspired the song, named for the end of the ad: ‘She has with her a 9-month-old baby, who is at the purchaser’s option.’”
For all the beauty and grace in Giddens’ music, she is not afraid to look at things that are ugly and horrifying. Which leads to the third and final aspect of Freedom Highway that I think distinguishes it from Tomorrow Is My Turn: Freedom Highwayexplores black history in the United States more bluntly, more insistently, and more pointedly than any of Giddens’ previous projects.
♪ Young man was a good man, always went to school
Young man was a good man, never played the fool
Freedom Highway repeatedly affirms the value of black experiences and the lessons in humanity that those experiences offer. And for Giddens, those lessons are not merely academic. They apply to real life right here in the twenty-first century. For example, this song, “Better Get It Right the First Time,” evokes recent events that have sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
The central character is described as a “young man” and “good man” who took care of his mama, eschewed drugs, studied hard, prepped for college, but who, nonetheless, finds himself in a potentially lethal interaction with the police. The chorus warns, “Better get it right the first time,”
♪ Better get it right the first time
Better get it right the first time,
because in situations like this, you might never get a second chance.
♪ Better get it right the first time
By the way, in case you’re worried that Freedom Highwaymight be too incendiary for your tastes, it probably isn’t. Because Giddens’ writing is more unitive than divisive. With a white father and a black mother and homes in both North Carolina and Ireland, she is a self-described multi-culturalist who can be very frank in writing about black suffering but always with respect for the humanity of all.
For me, the song that illustrates this multi-cultural aspect of Giddens writing most provocatively is this one. It’s called “Julie,” and it’s written as a dialogue between a slave named Julie and her mistress.
♪ Julie oh Julie oh won’t you run
‘cause I see down yonder the soldiers have come
The dialogue occurs at the very moment Union soldiers are arriving to emancipate the mistress’s slaves. The mistress expresses genuine sadness at the prospect of having to part with Julie, begging her not to “leave us who love you and all you hold dear,” and enticing her with a chest of gold. Julie, finally free to speak her mind, reminds the mistress that the gold in the chest was attained when the mistress sold Julie’s children into slavery. The song ends with Julie singing this line:
♪ Mistress, oh Mistress, I wish you well
But in leaving here, I’m leaving Hell
Giddens is forthright about black suffering in this song, but she’s also honest about the complexities of race relations. Slavery is rightly depicted as reprehensible, but the mistress is depicted as more pathetic than demonic. She seems to have some genuine affection for Julie. She wants her to stay and prosper and be a source of emotional stability in the destabilization that follows war. What the mistress fails to see is the patent absurdity of such a request in light of the immeasurable damage she has wrought on Julie and her children.
In the end, this song is not as much about the struggle of one race against another as it is about the frustration and sadness of one person failing to recognize the other person’s humanity. Freedom Highway may not be Giddens’ most light-hearted effort to date, but it is her most poignant.
And for that reason, my answer to the question of whether Rhiannon Giddens managed to avoid the sophomore slump with this album is a resounding YES. Freedom Highway is similar enough to her past efforts that we can hear it as a continuation of her mission to celebrate black folk music and give voice to the underrepresented. It’s also different enough from her past effort that we can hear it for its own distinct contribution.
It is decidedly her most original and most openly political effort so far. But despite the clarity and insistence of her political stance, this album is not a divisive album. It’s an album for everybody. The lyrics of “At the Purchaser’s Option,” for example, never explicitly mention slavery.
♪ I’ve got a babe, but shall I keep him?
Instead, they are the words of a concerned parent who is uncertain about her child’s future in a world that can be unfathomably cruel—and this is a worry almost anybody can understand. Freedom Highway is an unmistakably black album, but, more than that, it is an unmistakably HUMAN album.
It may not be Giddens’ cheeriest effort to date, but it is that sense of shared humanity that keeps the project from feeling hopeless. Freedom may not be a destination that has been reached. But there is a highway that leads to it. And, if we heed the lessons of history, we can travel it together.
♪ Made up my mind that I won’t turn around
Made up my mind that I won’t turn around
Thank you for listening to the inaugural episode of What’s This Album About? If you feel so inspired, please take a moment to like, share, comment, or subscribe. You can find What’s This Album About? in all the usual social media locations.
And if you have an idea for a future episode, I’d love to hear about it. A great way to get a hold of me is at email@example.com. Until next time, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to keep your ears open because...