Know thy history. Let it horrify you; let it inspire you. Let it show you how the future can look, for nothing in this world has not come around before.
Originally from North Carolina, banjo, fiddle player and singer Rhiannon Giddens is also a music historian at heart. Through her work with Carolina Chocolate Drops, the old-time music band she founded in 2005, the musician has been exploring and reviving the repertoire of early African-American music which saw Southern black music and work songs fuse with church music, folk, blues, early jazz and traditional tunes of Scottish and Irish origins. In 2015, Giddens launched Tomorrow is my Turn, her début solo album. Produced by T Bone Burnett, it featured a lush collection of covers from the gospel, blues, jazz, traditional and country repertoire.
Released on 24 February 2017 last on the Nonesuch record label and co-produced by Dirk Powell, Rhiannon Giddens’ second full-length LP Freedom Highway includes this time nine original songs. Delving into America’s sometimes tortuous past, the album ranges from “slave narratives from the 1800s and African American experiences of the last century” to Civil Rights Movement anthems and present time stories of discrimination. Throughout the album, two powerful components are channelling the narration: the singer’s formidable voice and the forgotten sound of the minstrel banjo.
A mesmerising looping riff on the banjo introduces the album and the heart-stopping “At the Purchaser’s Option” whose lyrics are based on a newspaper ad for a young woman dating back to the 1830s. The instrument also features on “Julie”, a chilling song inspired by a 19th-century slave’s memoir or on the instrumental “Following the North Star”.
Characterised by a much deeper sound than their modern counterparts and played with a stroke style, minstrel-era banjos are heavier, have a wider back, longer necks and no frets.
First introduced in the American plantations in the mid-1650s as a basic lute, the banjo originates from the African continent. Brought over by slaves, the instrument was played exclusively by black African American musicians until the beginning of the 19th century. Mixing with black musicians, poor white musicians and travelling entertainers introduced the banjo to a white audience from the 1830s onwards in racially-charged and grotesque “Minstrel Shows”. Featuring black-faced entertainers, minstrelsy became a hugely popular form of entertainment in the United States until the early 1900s before fading into obscurity.
Over the past number of years, Rhiannon Giddens has embraced the original instrument as it was played in the 19th century minstrel shows and uses a custom made replica on the record. As acknowledged by the singer, playing the racially-charged instrument has in turn influenced her historical awareness and songwriting.
Recorded in Dirk Powell’s Breaux Bridge studios in Louisiana, Freedom Highway brings those raw emotions to the surface, all fuelled by history and the urge to give a voice to the silenced.
Through the medium of ballads, spirituals, R&B, gospel and striking folk songs, Freedom Highway expertly weaves three centuries of history together from slave-era to civil war, from 1960s Civil Rights-era (Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday”) to contemporary America – “Better Get it Right the First Time” was written as a response to recent police shootings on black men and features rapper and nephew of the singer Justin Harrington.
The album also stars singer songwriter Bhi Bhiman as well as guest cellist Leyla McCalla who was a touring member of Carolina Chocolate Drops for a few years.
Giving its name to the album and concluding it on a high note, the song “Freedom Highway” is a reprise of the 1965 Staple Singers and Civil Rights Movement anthem. In light of the current resurgence of white supremacism and racial tension in the Southern States as witnessed during the controversial summer 2017 Charlottesville protests, the song remains topical more than half a century on.
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 U.S. from US—unless we let them […] America’s strength are 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.