Rhiannon Giddens "Freedom Highway"

The pages of history can be stripped dry of the humanity that created it. Devoid of the reality of personal struggle, sacrifice, triumph, and tragedy, the human narrative is lost. Rhiannon Giddens breathes life into people who fought for civil rights in the United States, beginning with those who endured slavery. Her powerful portrayals place these people directly before us, their existence undeniable and identifiable.

Freedom Highway opens with an emotional power punch. “At the Purchaser’s Option” is a gut-wrenching depiction of a young mother pondering whether her impending sell will wrench her away from her newborn. The production is stripped bare, the music is tempered, her vocals are tearless and resolute. “Julie” describes the uncomfortable relationship between the “owned” and “owner” and the assumed agreements between the two. From here Giddens moves to more contemporary events. Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday” retells the horror visited upon the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls died in a bombing perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963.  The album’s other covers include Mississippi John Hurt’s “The Angels Laid Him Away,” and the title track written by Pops Staples.

Giddens’ original songs deal with recent events or with personal reflection and offer more elaborate arrangements. “Get It Right the First Time” captures the precarious situation of young black men in society, how one misstep can lead to life and death situations. She and Bhi Bhiman team up on the jazzy “The Love We Almost Had." “We Could Fly” connects Giddens to her ancestors by acknowledging their strength and hope and how it continues to imbue her life. The instrumental, “Following the North Star,” features Giddens on the Minstrel banjo, an instrument used by slaves, and also features bones, and drum. The banjo figures prominently on “Baby Boy,” a lullaby that could be about Christ, Martin Luther King, or a future leader. It’s a plaintive piece that features three vocals, Giddens, her sister Lalenja Harrington, and cellist Leyla McCalla. Their voices at first separate, interweave by songs end, as does the lives of ancestors and their lineage. 

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix)

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