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RHIANNON GIDDENS - FREEDOM HIGHWAY: REVIEW

March 1, 2017

 

RHIANNON GIDDENS

Freedom Highway (Warner)


There already is fatigue setting in - for editors, for headliner writers, for readers - when it comes to matters Trump v artists.


Apart from those for whom ego (Kanye West), rank ignorance (Scott Baio), or a history of gun-toting, race-baiting crassness (Ted Nugent) make them fellow travellers, most artists have a variation on we must fight, we must convince or we must understand, when the man rapper Busta Rhymes called President Agent Orange comes up.


Which is all fine, of course. As Taylor Swift has already discovered, there is very little room on the sidelines at the moment: in this fractured environment, if you’re not standing against him, you’re seen as for him.


Rhiannon Giddens, not just a woman but a black woman; not just a black woman but an educated, articulate, historically-aware black woman, would be an obvious candidate for taking an oppositional, directly rebuking stance on her new album.


She instead has done something probably smarter and certainly more complex: refuse to buy into the idea that what we are seeing now is unique or of this moment; cavil at the suggestion that Trump and those around him, behind him and for him, are not the outcomes of long-standing behaviours, attitudes and laws that have their roots in the stained earth of slavery but have grown thick in the century or more since.


Freedom Highway does not address Trump directly or obliquely, but rather takes on explicitly America’s continuing legacy of racism and sexism and corporatism.


In Birmingham Sunday, written by Richard Farina 50 years ago but no less powerful, or indeed heartbreaking for that, Giddens names the young girls killed in the bombing of a black community’s church, on a day when “the blood ran like wine, and the choirs kept singing of freedom”.


It has the stately tempo of a slow march, the organ offering of soul and the swelling heart of gospel, with Giddens resolute and lifting all around her like a tide. You hurt but you don’t give in to despair.


Then there’s Giddens’ At The Purchasers Option, the title taken from a line in a 19th century advertisement offering for sale a 22 year old “used to both housework and farming”, with her nine-month-old child available “at the purchaser’s option”.


This time, over a sterner rhythm and Giddens banjo as the principal instrument, she has steel in her tone as she sings of a woman who won’t stop loving this child even after “the day when I’ll be weepin’” and won’t let the men she is making rich with her work remove everything from her.

 

“You can take my body, you can take my bones/You can take my blood but not my soul.”

 

And then in Better Get It Right The First Time, which begins as a relaxed urban blues, Giddens describes a young man “a good man”, who made a couple of mistakes and that was enough to put him in the sights of – we presume, with grounds to so presume – a policeman.

 

“Did you stand your ground … is that why they took you down?” she sings. “Or did you run that day … baby, they shot you anyway.”

 

When Justin Harrington takes up the story in spoken word/rap, talking of “kids watching their fathers die when they pull up the tube”, he makes the point that “we know enough to be cautious but honestly it’s not simple”.

 

In three separate songs, canvassing three distinct eras, the common ground is obvious, as is the reality that nothing’s changing around here any time soon. You don’t need to mention him to say it all.

 

Nor does she need to hammer the point in every song either with a couple of love songs and a string band instrumental breaking up the storytelling and the album’s closer, a defiant, brassy strutting thing a halfway house with its MLK-like optimism.

 

Musically, as she did on the first album made under her own name after beginning a recording career with the string band revivalists Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens ranges widely across American musics.

 

Blues, country, spirituals, bar-room grooves and traditional folk figure here, most of them written or co-written by a clearly more confident Giddens, alongside the works of Pops Staples and Mississippi John Hurt.

 

She has always been a willing and gifted student: of formal classical voice training, of American roots music, of Gaelic and of Caledonian songs, and of history.

 

The only thing that Giddens has not yet mastered, indeed may never master because in a very real sense it’s not something you learn but rather something you have, is the ability to show vulnerability or tenderness or maybe even weakness.

 

Her voice is strong, unbreakable, and it can convey a sad tale as well as it conveys a defiant one. But while it can tell you the details of a broken body or heart, it can’t yet show you that that crumpled thing is in her blood or soul as it might be in yours.

 

That aspect remains a story not a truth in Giddens voice.

 

But there’s a place for people like Rhiannon Giddens and it’s at the front of the march and the church and the house. She’s got plenty of stories to tell and, undoubtedly, another four years at least to draw modern parallels with her country’s chequered history.

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