by Sanjana Rajavelu
Freedom Highway, released by Nonesuch Records on February 24, 2017, was written and recorded by artist Rhiannon Giddens. Giddens developed this album with the help of a few other songwriters, namely Dirk Powell. The album is titled after an album of The Staples’ that is also called Freedom Highway, and shares the exact same titular track. Giddens’ Freedom Highway is an album that draws its inspiration from many different musical influences, specifically folk, Americana, and roots music. These various types of music all have one important thing in common: they originate from black and Western African culture, but have been appropriated by white artists for so long that the black community no can no longer lay claim to this music.
This phenomenon is not unheard of : it can be seen in the history of rock and roll music, as well as in the history of acting. However, Rhiannon Giddens, in lieu of addressing the heritage that has been taken from the black community, chooses to head straight for reclamation of her culture, and does so successfully with her album Freedom Highway.
Historical and Cultural Context
Freedom Highway is an album that reflects on the stories of the slave era and the impact this era had on the hardship of black people during the civil rights movement.
In addition, it is also a commentary on modern day American race relations. Giddens, while discussing this album in an interview, said,”Know thy history,” indicating that she made this album based of off these stories in order to raise awareness of and document the history of black people in America. In addition, because this album was written and released in the past year (2017), it functions as a commentary on the state that theUnited States is currently in.
Giddens has named some of the artists that were musical influences for her during the development of this album. She really draws inspiration from the likes of Patsy Cline, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Geeshie Wiley, and Dolly Parton, all women who impacted her asan artist. In an interview she says that she wants to “honor the work that they’ve done and…carry it forward.” (Freshgrass)
Freedom Highway is Giddens’ second album. She has done a good deal of work as part of a band known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and produced an album, Tomorrow is My Turn, individually. Both these experiences have shaped her journey in creating this album as well.
In her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens has spent a good deal of time analyzing the same kinds of music we see within Freedom Highway. The band explores traditional African American string music, and works to reclaim a type of music that is typically seen as “white,” but was initially a part of African American culture. The band focuses on proving the presence of African American culture in the music of today, and dabbles in an array of music, ranging from the early ‘20’s to 1930’s, and spreading across string-band, jug-band, early jazz, and other forms of southern black music.
On her own, Giddens developed her image as a solo artist (she is still part of the band) in her first album. In Tomorrow is My Turn, Giddens can be seen extrapolating on the musics of those female artists mentioned above as her influences, and also coming into her own domain and image as an artist. This establishment of a character and style for herself as an artist, as well as her extensive time looking into traditionally black music with the band set Giddens up in an excellent position to create and produce Freedom Highway.
Themes and Style
Rhiannon Giddens has produced music in Freedom Highway that greatly reflects the theme of the stories that she has chosen to tell. The theme of most slave stories, and the music of that time, tended toward a dark story with an underlying strand of hope for the end of their suffering, of the horrible things they endured. Giddens’ music reflects this clearly in her songs, such as in At the Purchaser’s Option, in which she sings, “I have a babe, but shall I keep him?” Her implication in this line is that the child the speaker in this song is not necessarily her own, a hardship that was felt by numerous people in this time period.
However, she juxtaposes the feelings and tone in this line with a defiant, repetitive stanza, “You can take my body/ you can take my soul/ you can take my blood/ but not my bones,” indicating the determination and small allowance of hope that was present in many people, as well as the stories they told. If one takes a look at the story of Nat Turner, for example, one can see that Nat Turner struggled to educate himself and to raise a following of men for himself under the harsh conditions he lived in. When Turner’s rebellion failed, his story did not dissuade others. Other slaves saw his determination, his hope for a better future, and they took it upon themselves to keep pursuing freedom, regardless of the costs. The crushing of Nat Turner’s rebellion took many lives, but it did not make obsolete the feeling of hope that sparked the rebellion.
Gidden expands on this theme with more lyrics in the song, such as “You took me to bed a
little girl/left me in a woman’s world.” This lyric can be read into as a woman being impregnated. However, due to the historical, slave era related context to this entire album, and this song, we can interpret these lyrics as a commentary on how many young children, teenaged girls, were raped by slave owners during the slave era, and left pregnant, their children belonging to their owners. It puts the song more into context, and even makes it more depressing because the context suggests that the child she had is forced upon her, and then when she accepts this responsibility as she must and raises the child, she has to do so with the knowledge that the child could be taken away from her at any moment, hence the line, “I have a babe, but shall I keep him?”
Finally, the last reference we see in this particular song to the struggles of slavery and of that era are the words “Day by day I work the line…My fingers bleed to make you rich.” These words indicate to us that the story is told from the perspective of a slave, as the narrator has made a solid reference to slavery here by admitting to working for someone else in order to better them (and not herself), and within these line she says she is “working the line” indicating that she is working to pick cotton in the rows and rows of cotton fields on a plantation. Through some subtle and not so subtle messages, Rhiannon Giddens shows us a slave story, where we follow a journey, of a woman (or perhaps even a young, teenage girl) who works a slave, who was raped and now has a child, who can be taken from her at any moment.
Because this work was only recently published, there are not currently any published scholarly articles about the album or on Giddens’ impact with the use of this album. However the majority of the feedback on the album and the conversation surrounding it are positive.
The titles given to articles mentioning Giddens’ new work read in a way that depicts Giddens as talented as well as socially engaged. For example Terry Gross’s interview with Giddens is titled, “Rhiannon Giddens Speaks for the Silenced.” (NPR) The implication given in this title is that the artist is saying something that has been addressed, but at a platform where voices could not be heard, or were muffled. This title itself is a compliment to the album and the artist because it is applauding Giddens on speaking her mind and speaking others’ truth.
Jonathan Bernstein says, “Rhiannon Giddens emerges as a peerless and powerful voice in roots music on her second solo album, a record that traces the power of African-American song from 200 years ago to today.” (Pitchfork) An important thing to take away from this review is that Giddens’ intention (to spread stories of slaves of the past and send a message about the condition of black people in American society today) in creating this album is being effectively delivered to and understood by her audience. Giddens’ image as an artist is also identified, and Berenstein even says she is “peerless” in her field.
Metacritic.com gives the album an overscore of 80, which indicates that the public, especially those that listen to this genre of music, enjoy the message and music produced by Giddens in Freedom Highway (Metacritic). The overall lack of negative reviews, paired with praise from several critics is an excellent indicator that Giddens message is reaching her target audience, and perhaps even flowing to listeners outside of her target audience.
Critics appreciate Gidden’s message, and acknowledge that she is accurately portraying a history often swept under the rug, “Rhiannon Giddens shows us that … America was never as innocent as some nostalgists want to believe,” (Powers, NPR) This critique goes on to say that Giddens has done a good job in calling out a set of beliefs perpetuated about the culture in America that are blatantly untrue, and applauds her for commenting not only on past but also the present racial tension in America. Powers also acknowledges that Giddens music is an excellent medium for the stories she is trying to represent: “the heritage Rhiannon Giddens revitalizes: the side of folk music that’s…about excavating lost histories,” In this part of her critique Powers makes the claim that Giddens has created music that fits well into what folk is meant to be, by telling stories of the past, the stories that no one else is truly willing to tell.
Bernstein, Jonathan. “Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway.” Rhiannon Giddens:Freedom Highway Album Review | Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 23 Feb. 2017, pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/22912-freedom-highway/.
Gibson, Donald. “Learning Curves and Musical Curiosities: An Interview with Rhiannon Giddens.” The Journal of Roots Music, Freshgrass, 26 Oct. 2015, nodepression.com/interview/learning-curves-and-musical-curiosities-interview-rhiannon-giddens
Gross, Terry. “Rhiannon Giddens Speaks For The Silenced.” NPR, NPR, 3 July 2017, www.npr.org/2017/07/03/534887214/rhiannon-giddens-speaks-for-the-silenced.
Library of Congress, and Smithsonian Institution. “American Roots Music.” PBS,Public Broadcasting Service, 2001, www.pbs.org/americanrootsmusic/pbs_arm_itc_historical_background.html.
Metacritic, “Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens.” Metacritic, Nonesuch, 24 Feb.2017, www.metacritic.com/music/freedom-highway/rhiannon-giddens.
Powers, Ann. “Review: Rhiannon Giddens, ‘Freedom Highway’.” NPR, NPR, 16 Feb. 2017, www.npr.org/2017/02/16/515002345/first-listen-rhiannon-giddens-freedom-highway.
Ed, Easy. “Rethinking American Roots Music in Black and White.” No Depression, Freshgrass, 2 Dec. 2015, nodepression.com/article/rethinking-american-roots-music-black-and-white.
Hamilton, Jack. Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination. Harvard University Press, 2016.
Lott, Eric. “‘The Seeming Counterfeit’: Racial Politics and Early Blackface Minstrelsy.”American Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, 1991, pp. 223–254. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2712925
Ruehl, Kim. “The History of African-American Folk Music.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 8 Nov. 2017, www.thoughtco.com/history-of-african-american-folk-music-1322654.
Slavery, Stories, Black History, Giddens, Freedom Highway, Roots, Slaves, Americana, Plantations, Music