21 Mar 2017

Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 21 March 2017
Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens Photo: John Peets

Nick Bollinger reviews a set of freedom songs from Rhiannon Giddens.

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Can a voice be too beautiful for the stories it has to tell? That might be a strange question, but one I found myself pondering as I listened to this album.

On the opening track Rhiannon Giddens demonstrates a voice that is effortlessly fluid, with a hint of an operatic training, while the rustic melody and banjo accompaniment show a long immersion in American folk music. The song is her own, and like the accompaniment it looks to the past, in this case to the shameful history of American slavery. The grim title ‘At The Purchaser’s Option’ comes straight from a 19th century advertisement for a 22-year-old female slave - her child being the optional extra.

That’s not the only song Giddens has here that dramatizes some of the ugly truths on which America is founded. Another original, ‘Julie’, is set in the same South, just a little later, as the Civil War looms. In the manner of an old folk ballad, it recounts a conversation between a white mistress and her female slave about to claim her freedom.

Though these are new songs, they have the feeling of found artefacts; the same quality you’ll find in some of Gillian Welch’s writing. Giddens may be a scholar of archaic styles, but the history in her songs is not merely of academic interest. She’s singing about these things because of their connection to American life today; something that becomes clear when both subject and musical style are brought swiftly up to the present in a song like ‘Better Get It Right The First Time’. With a rhythm and soul groove, Giddens turns her attention there to the modern epidemic of young black men dying at the hands of police.

In between you’ll find a ballad Giddens didn’t write, but fills another place in the continuum. Composed by the folk singer Richard Farina in the wake of the Birmingham church bombings of 1963, and most memorably recorded by Farina’s sister-in-law Joan Baez, ‘Birmingham Sunday’ is an iconic song of the civil rights era. Baez’s original version was moving, but in resetting it as a gospel tune, with producer and multi-instrumental maestro Dirk Powell providing the stately piano chords, Giddens gives it a new gravity. It’s a spectacular performance, and not the only time on this record that Powell’s sympathetic skills shine. Recorded at his Louisiana studio, he seems to tap into sounds that are really part of the environment there – like the New Orleans horn and Zydeco rub-board on ‘Hey Bebe’, one of the rare occasions where Giddens leaves the historic theme and, for just a moment, gets happy.

Songs featured: At The Purchaser’s Option, Julie, Better Get It Right The First Time, Birmingham Sunday, Hey Bebe, Freedom Highway.

Freedom Highway is available on Nonesuch Records.