Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Music As History: Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens at the 2015 Big Ears Festival Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo: Amos Perrine)

On the cover of Freedom Highway (Nonesuch), the new album by Rhiannon Giddens, the singer stands alone in a forlorn position, barefoot on a muddy country road. The colours are as subdued as the artist who graces the cover. Frank Zappa once said that album art is often a key to the music inside, yet one would be surprised by the music on Freedom Highway, a wide-ranging sequence of original songs, closing with the "Pops" Staples title track. For Giddens, who prides herself on being a student of African-American history, bowing one’s head in respect to past generations is the first order of the day. After that, a celebration the songs of which Freedom Highway are made.

Rhiannon Giddens has come a long way as a singer and musician since she first broke on the scene in 2010 with Carolina Chocolate Drops. The North Carolina trio established a sound and a set list that was not only historically important, but also artistically risky. Dipping into really old mountain music satisfies a niche market at the expense of broader appeal, but when she signed with Nonesuch, a label that really knows their audience, the wider appeal grew very quickly. The multi-talented Giddens, who had studied as an opera singer, eventually left the trio to start her own musical journey. Her first solo project, the superb Tomorrow Is My Turn, was released only two years ago and was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Folk Music category. For this album of classic folk and blues songs mostly written by trailblazing women such as Nina Simone and Dolly Parton, Giddens carefully researched each work and gave them a fresh perspective. Only one original, “Angel City,” appears on the record.

Freedom Highway, which was released two weeks ago, features nine original songs and three covers and I’m happy to report that there’s not a dud among them. It’s only the first track on the album that reflects her sad and solitary cover image. “At The Purchaser’s Option” is sung in the first person and it’s about a female slave who carefully weaves her story with a powerful refrain: “You can take my body, you can take my bones, / You can take my blood but not my soul.” It’s not a song about defeat, but a song about empowerment. It’s this feeling of empowerment that threads all of the songs on the album, ending with a "march down” the “Freedom Highway," as so eloquently put by the Staples Singers back in 1965. That song perfectly captured the peaceful strength of the Civil Rights movement and it hasn’t lost its luster and meaning, fifty years later. For the 21st century, Giddens has blended an up-tempo horn arrangement that sounds like classic New Orleans second line. It is this musical mix that highlights each and every track.

I think part of the success of this record is Giddens's association with musician/producer Dirk Powell, the Grammy-nominated fiddle player. He co-wrote several of the tracks on this release and his contribution has certainly been effective, even though a listener never knows specifically who wrote what on a particular tune. That said, Powell’s collaboration with Giddens lifts the music and frees it from cliché, while opening the pallette to a wider choice of colours and rhythms. Case in point: the urban sound of “Better Get It Right The First Time,” a steady R&B song with a rap break from her nephew Justin Harrington, as he rounds out the daily fears of police brutality in Black neighborhoods.

Freedom Highway never strays too far away from itself as a politically charged album; in fact that’s Giddens’ intention as a composer. In an articulate Oxford American profile recently published called Past is Present, author Gayle Wald describes Giddens' writing process this way: “clear-eyed conceptualization of music as history: not merely as sonic ornamentation of the past but the past in sonic form.” It’s a solid assessment of Giddens's place in American music. What’s interesting to me is her excellent version of “Birmingham Sunday” written by the under-recognized Richard Farina. The song reports on the 1963 murder of four girls by the KKK at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. Giddens takes this classic talking history song and makes it her own because it’s an informed performance rather than Farina’s original as a reporter of history, even though Giddens wasn’t yet born when he wrote it. In her version we can’t hide from the emotional impact of the wrongs of the past; we are involved and in a way, responsible for social injustices. But it’s not about blame or being lectured from a self-righteous artist. It’s about understanding the inhumanity of history through song: a deeper message Freedom Highway offers with passion, grace and a little fire.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

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