Acclaimed Americana musician Rhiannon Giddens’ second solo album, Freedom Highway, is an ambitious and timely one. Over the course of twelve tracks, Giddens presents music based on, in her own words, “slave narratives from the 1800s, African American experiences of the last century, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and headlines from streets of Ferguson and Baltimore today.”
Of the twelve tracks on Freedom Highway, Giddens wrote or co-write nine. Another is a traditional song, and the final two are civil rights-era songs, “Birmingham Sunday” and Staple Singers’ well-known “Freedom Highway,” from which the album takes its name.
Featuring little more instrumentation than a plucked banjo, opening track “At the Purchaser’s Option” presents a harrowing first person account of a young woman wondering whether she will have to give up her baby when she is sold as a slave. A 19th Century advertisement inspired Giddens to write the song. “Thinking about her,” the musician said, “and how she had to maintain her humanity against horrific odds inspired this song named for the end of the ad: ‘She has with her a 9-month old baby, who is at the purchaser’s option.'”
The album closes with its bright and uplifting title track, showing in the expansion of sound and the cultural progress since the time of “At the Purchaser’s Option.” Giddens herself, on the day after the 2016 Presidential Election, said the following of the song:
“I am a daughter of the South; of the white working class, of the black working class; of the Democrat, and the Republican; of the gay, and the straight; and I can tell you one thing—we are far more alike than we are different. 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. I recorded this with Bhi Bhiman, all-American singer-songwriter from St. Louis, whose parents are from Sri Lanka. 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.”