Rhiannon Giddens first made her name with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who played string-band music, heavily relying on the banjo and fiddle. The band formed after the first Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina in 2005 and helped to reclaim a lost tradition of African-American country music. Their music reached its peak in 2010 with the joyful sounds of “Genuine Negro Jig.”
Freedom Highway is Giddens’ second solo album. Most of the songs are written by her and tell of racist and sexual violence from slavery and the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement and up to today. There is a brutal continuity in these experiences, “an old, old song” as she describes it.
Two of the songs come from the Civil Rights Movement. The Staples Singers’ “Freedom Highway” is a driving song of determined resistance, while Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday” poignantly describes the racist murder of four young black girls when an Alabama church was bombed in 1963.
But the spirit of resistance imbues all of her own compositions as well. “You can take my body…but not my soul” she sings in “At the Purchaser’s Option”, a story of babies sold into slavery. There is optimism in “We Could Fly” with its soaring vocals “searching for the promised land”.
By contrast the driving hip-hop influenced rhythms of “Better Get It Right The First Time” describe a racist police killing like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
Her music remains rooted in the Piedmont blues style of North Carolina, with the banjo and other acoustic stringed instruments featuring prominently. It is augmented in some of these songs with electric guitar, percussion and wind instruments too. Just as the themes of the songs cover more than two centuries of the African-American experience so the music has folk, blues, jazz, rap and funk influences, all topped with Giddens’s amazing soprano voice.
Rhiannon Giddens has set out to create an album which speaks to the need to resist in the US today. As the title track has it, “We’re marching the freedom highway, and we’re not going to turn around.” Giddens wrote about this track, “We cannot let hate divide us; we cannot let ignorance diminish us; we cannot let those whose greed fills their every waking hour take our country from us. They can’t take US from US — unless we let them. I recorded this with Bhi Bhiman, all-American singer-songwriter from St Louis, whose parents are from Sri Lanka. America’s strength is her people, whether they came 4,000, 400 or 40 years ago, and we can’t leave anyone behind. Let’s walk down Freedom Highway together.”