More than a gorgeous roots record, Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens also doubles as a history lesson, the singer delving into an American past that has had more than its share of inexcusable atrocities. Over the course of 12 emotional tracks, the Greensboro, North Carolina–raised multi-instrumentalist goes deep as a storyteller, spinning tales that speak volumes about how far the United States has come as a civilized country, and, just as importantly, how far it still has to go.
Take, for example, “At the Purchaser’s Option”, a haunting piece of skeletal Americana that has its roots in a 19th-century newspaper ad that read “For sale, a remarkable smart Negro wench, about 22 years of age; used to both house work and farming.” The ad came with the footnote that the woman had a nine-month-old that could be sold “at the purchaser’s option”.
A soaring gospel-tinted cover of “Birmingham Sunday”, which was recorded by Joan Baez, revisits the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of an Alabama church. The funk-powered “Better Get It Right This Time”—complete with a hip-hop breakdown—zeroes in on the alarming number of black Americans who continue to be brutalized by police.
Reached on her cell in Portland, where’s she conducting violin workshops for kids who include her young daughter, Giddens says she’d like to report that most Americans have some basic knowledge of the various events chronicled on Freedom Highway. That, however, is anything but the case, especially when it comes to the days slavery was part of the fabric of the United States.
“I wish these things were taught in school, but our history is taught so badly,” she says. “If you’re lucky, it’s like, ‘There’s a picture of a slave ship. It was terrible. And now, moving on…’ My memories of what I learned in school are really weak. So everything that I pull on now has been learned as an adult; I’ve done a lot of reading to educate myself about this time period. There’s a lot of really great scholarship coming out now that’s contextualizing things correctly and looking at the picture the way it should be looked at. So I feel like we’re really lucky right now. There’s no excuse not to learn about our history. It’s like, ‘Put the phone down and pick up a book and read it.’ If it takes you three weeks or a month, then whatever, because the more you read, the more you’ll be like, ‘Holy crap—this is really big stuff.’ ”
It would have been easy for Giddens to play it safe by avoiding the political; while activism is embraced at socially conscious events like the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, it can restrict one’s audience on a mainstream level. And Giddens has definitely crossed over into that mainstream. Classically trained as an opera singer, she first surfaced as a dedicated interpreter of old-timey music with the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.
In 2013 she made overnight friends with some heavy hitters (Patti Smith, Jack White, and Marcus Mumford), thanks to two standing ovations at Manhattan’s Another Day, Another Time: Inside Llewyn Davis, a concert celebrating the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis. In the months that followed, she’d perform at the White House for Barack Obama alongside Aretha Franklin and Lyle Lovett, record with the likes of Elvis Costello and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and release a cover-oriented debut album, Tomorrow Is My Turn.
But through all these rarefied encounters with celebrities, she never lost sight of the fact that with knowledge comes compassion. And compassion is something that the United States needs, now that Trump’s America is almost proudly intolerant of those who aren’t part of the white establishment.
“It’s not a great vibe right now,” Giddens says with a sigh. “We’ve always had racial issues, and we’ve always had social issues. But the tone and how people are talking about these things is really difficult right now. There’s a lot of negativity and blind following, but there’s not a lot of critical thinking.”
For a primer on how far back those issues go, one need only consult Freedom Highway’s “Julie”, which has Giddens singing over sepia-toned fiddle and muted banjo. One of the most powerful moments on an album with no shortage of them, the track deals with the often complicated relationship that enslaved black Americans had with their white owners. Set during the Civil War, with Union soldiers arriving on the horizon, the song opens with a Confederate wife pleading for her house servant to stay: “Julie, oh Julie, don’t leave here/Leave us who love you, and all you hold dear.” It ends with the lines “Mistress, oh mistress, I wish you well/But in leavin’ here, I’m leavin’ hell.”
“Reading primary source material—things in the voices of the people who lived them—is really important,” Giddens says. “That’s when you start to get the nuances of what it was like for both sides. There’s a huge power differential between Julie and her mistress, but to understand the whole system you have to understand the mistress’s side as well. Because then that helps you understand what happens after Reconstruction, what happens after emancipation.
“There’s this belief that northerners wanted the slaves freed and were happy to live amongst them,” she continues. “That just wasn’t true. The prevailing antiblack attitude everywhere was enormously strong. So you have people in the North going, ‘Yeah, slavery’s wrong, but let’s send them back to Africa because we really don’t like them and we don’t want to live with them.’ When you realize how strong that was right from the beginning, it becomes a huge part of the system today. When you have racially based slavery, buried in that is dehumanization and a hatred of the race you enslave. It goes hand in hand.”
For all of Freedom Highway’s importance as a protest record, Giddens’s most impressive achievement is that the album is also unmistakably uplifting. Sometimes that’s simply because she goes the lighthearted route. The 40-year-old sets up in the French Quarter—complete with Preservation Hall trumpet—for the swooning Dixieland-jazz love letter “Hey Bébé” and inspirationally suggests that there’s always a better world to escape to with the melancholy acoustic ballad “We Could Fly”.
But even when things get heavy, the songs on Freedom Highway have a strength and dignity that suggests, no matter how bad things get, one doesn’t give up the struggle. That spirit bleeds through the banjo-driven, sepia-toned death march “Come Love Come”, with its lyrics “When I was four, my loving mam/Was cornered by the boss’s man/She turned her head and got struck down/They buried her in the cold cold ground.” And it’s there in the album’s closer, a spirited soul cover of the Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway”. Released in 1965, the song contains the lines “The whole world is wonderin’/What’s wrong with the United States.” Sadly, that question is just as relevant today, despite the decades that America has had to get things right. As extreme as the story laid out in “At the Purchaser’s Option” may be, there are modern parallels.
“I remembered working on a cruise ship performing with a band and having my baby with me,” she says. “All these young girls were working on the ship—cleaning and serving the food—and they were all loving my baby. I started talking to them, and they were like, ‘I had to leave my six-month-old with my mother. I’ll be off-season in four months.’ They were having to work to support their families. So, in some way or shape or form, that sort of stuff is still going on today.”
And that’s why the struggle to make the world a better place has to continue. Giddens is doing her part to not only educate but also encourage discourse in a way that’s constructive. The message is clear: even in the darkest of times, there’s always hope.
“You can’t live without it,” Giddens says. “If you look at the African-American community, that’s how we’ve gotten through. There’s a sheer joy at finding the light under adverse circumstances. If you can’t find that, then you might as well give up. It’s important to always remember that. You don’t survive by lying down and curling up—that’s when you die. You couldn’t do it back then and you can’t do it now. The world can be a beautiful place, but you’ve got to keep strong.”
Rhiannon Giddens plays the Vancouver Folk Music Festival Main Stage on Friday (July 14).