The more ambitious a concept album is, the more impressive it is when it succeeds. Freedom Highway sets out to tell the story of racism and oppression in America through the perspectives of black women, past and present. It dares to place place self-written material alongside civil rights standards, and to connect current struggles to historical ones, through the common thread of those who are silenced by those struggles. It attempts to be both timely and timeless, and to deal with the heaviest of subject matters without being weighed down by them. And in choosing the art form of an album, it has to get the music right, too.
In achieving all of these goals, Rhiannon Giddens has revealed herself to be an artist of extraordinary talent and vision. As good as her previous solo efforts and her work with Carolina Chocolate Drops were, they collectively pale in comparison to Freedom Highway. Giddens is so successful here because she chose to tell a larger story through telling the individual stories that are rarely heard. The album opens with “At the Purchaser’s Option,” which is apparently inspired by a slave-era advertisement that gave the buyer the option of including the child with the purchase of the mother. As an album opener, it could have immediately dated the proceedings and set Freedom Highway up to be more of a historical document than a vital piece of work. But the chorus that Giddens wrote provides the rallying cry of grief-fueled resilience for all of the stories that will follow: “You can take my body. You can take my bones. You can take my blood, but not my soul.”
Those stories stretch across time, unified by the hope and pain of those that live them. A mother’s grief is captured in “The Angels Laid Him Away,” one of the few songs not penned by Giddens, but the hope that sustains both mothers and daughters is elegantly captured in “We Could Fly.” The latter song isn’t the only conversation between two women on the album. “Julie,” a conversation between a house mistress and a slave on the cusp of freedom is a searing indictment of white privilege, as said house mistress simply can’t imagine that her dear Julie would want to “leave us who love you and all you hold dear.” The mistress is finally silenced by Julie’s stinging retort: “Mistress, O Mistress, that trunk of gold is what you got when my children you sold.” Giddens based this song on the memoir of a 19th century slave.
The finest moment of the set is the most timely one. “Better Get it Right the First Time” is a visceral realization of the impossible choice placed in front of black youths today, where their choices are retroactively deemed responsible for them being gunned down in the streets and the narratives of their lives are cynically destroyed to justify their deaths. Giddens reclaims their innocence and worth with the song’s simple, repeated statement that “young man was a good man,” but does not flinch at portraying the futility of that declaration and the fact that there was no way for him to get it right the first time: “Did you stand your ground? Is that why that shot you down? Or did you run that day? Baby, they shot you anyway.” The track is further elevated by a thrilling rap provided by Giddens’ nephew, Justin Harrington. As he tells the story of a young, good man gunned down, Giddens’ leads a chant of “Better get it right the first time” that grows louder, eventually drowning out his voice, perfectly mirroring how the truth and the innocence of the victims are drowned out by the need for an ill society to excuse the inexcusable.
The album is given some levity by songs that explore love realized (“Hey Bébé”) and love unrequited (“The Love We Almost Had”), which don’t distract from the larger themes of the record, but rather illuminate them, as Giddens reminds that the wants and needs of all women and men are universal, despite the injustices that stand in the way of some but not others. Telling those stories, too, helps fully set the stage for the title track, a civil rights standard that closes the album and is the first one to move away from individual stories and focus only an the fight for equality. When I first saw the track listing, I was surprised that “Freedom Highway” would close the album instead of open it, but it makes complete sense now. The album tells the story of why the march for freedom is necessary, and by closing with this anthem, we are also reminded that the fight that has gone on for centuries in America is still just beginning.
Recommended Tracks: “Better Get it Right the First Time,” “Julie,” “At the Purchaser’s Option”