Sonic Mission

Rhiannon Giddens’ March to Freedom Highway

Rhiannon Giddens suffers from tsundoku. "That's the Japanese term for having too many books, and knowing that you'll never be able to read them all," she explains. "If I see something that looks good, I'll get it ... and then it goes on the stack of things that I have to read."

The pile on Giddens' nightstand won't be shrinking any time soon. Since this founding member of old-time string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops released her new solo album in February, she's been busier than ever promoting it—and thank goodness for that. A powerful collection of songs about slavery and the struggle for civil rights, interpolating musical styles from gospel and bluegrass to Dixieland and hip-hop, Freedom Highway is an album our nation needs right now.

The genesis of Giddens' second full-length under her own name began with one book she did find time to read. The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves by Andrew Ward collects and contextualizes a variety of slaves' stories from the Civil War. "What you get is a feeling of what group of people was dealing with, rather than one narrative from beginning to end," Giddens says. "There were several stories in there that really struck me." One in particular inspired "Julie," a chilling exchange between a slave and her mistress as soldiers advance on the latter's home.

Another text she recommends is The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by historian Edward Baptist. "He doesn't ever use the word 'slave,' he uses 'enslaved people,' and 'enslavers' rather than 'slave owners,'" she notes. That small but crucial difference made a big impression. "I found that by the end of [the book] I was sitting up a little straighter."

On her album's opening cut, "At the Purchaser's Option," Giddens distills Baptist's insights into her own poetry ("Fingers nimble, fingers quick/My fingers bleed to make you rich"), yet carefully avoids words that could anchor the song in a specific place or time. "I wanted to make sure not to put any Deep South markers in the lyric, like cotton. 'Day by day/I work the line,' that could mean a factory, a field, anywhere."

Slavery, Giddens is quick to point out, isn't a thing of the past. "There's millions of women being trafficked today ... the epidemic is still really strong. So ["At the Purchaser's Option"] was an attempt to bridge the past and the now within the words, and not wanting the song to be specifically about 1855. I wanted to make sure it stayed universal."

Although much of the material on Freedom Highway nods directly to the Civil War or the '60s civil rights movement (including stirring covers of Richard Fariña's "Birmingham Sunday" and the Staple Singers' title tune), the end result feels immediate and contemporary. And that's because the record was created in the moment, Giddens says. It was arranged and recorded in eight days in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, with an enormous amount of input from co-producer Dirk Powell and a crew of musicians that included family members and her touring band.

"This was an album that came into being as we were doing it. You can't think too hard about it." Giddens would much rather do the prep work, build the team, and then watch what happens. "I can't work any other way. I really believe in holistic, organic music making. You craft these relationships and collaborations, and then you let it happen."

So far, the response has been enthusiastically positive, even on the other side of the world. The new album's debt to U.S. history wasn't a barrier to audiences on Giddens' recent Australian tour. "If people from outside of the States are into this music, then they have an understanding and an interest in the history," she observes. "I always find that very interesting. People are willing to dig into the slavery and civil rights aspects in a way that not everybody at home is."

Not that Giddens is only interested in preaching to the choir. Her natural instinct for collaboration has led to her working with everyone from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to Iron & Wine and New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint. Last year, she wound up on mainstream country radio, when an edited version of Eric Church's "Kill A Word" with Giddens' featured vocals became a Top Ten single.

"I don't ask 'what am I getting paid?' I'm always like, 'does that sound like a cool thing to do?' I don't worry about anything else, and that's served me well," she says apropos of the pairing. But what about performing on The Tonight Show and at the CMA Awards? "I take it all with a grain of salt. If doing something like ["Kill A Word"] will help more people learn about what I do, that's great, but I really don't care about the glitz and the glamour."

Nevertheless, Giddens voice brightens when she recalls being invited to perform at the White House in 2016, as part of celebration of gospel music that included turns from Aretha Franklin, Shirley Caesar, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, and Darlene Love.

Yet for all the star power onstage, her strongest memory is impressions from the technicians and crew. "It was so interesting hearing the people behind the scenes, who've been running that show for over 20 years, talk about the example [President and Mrs. Obama] set, how generous and welcoming they were."

"I'm so grateful to have had that moment," she adds, "especially now."

Her memories of receiving the 2016 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass sound rosy, too. "It felt good to be recognized for my ambassadorship of the banjo," she admits. Giddens is the first woman and the first person of color to win the $50,000 prize, and from her recurring role on Nashville, to playing minstrel songs at the Kennedy Center, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more passionate advocate. "I am a broken record when it comes to the banjo and the place that it holds [in American music]."

Rhiannon Giddens has a mission, and making music like Freedom Highway is how she fulfills it. "The reasons we're having so many problems today is because of ignorance about what actually happened [in the past]," she concludes. "I'm not going to go out and give lectures, or become a politician and change laws. I'm a musician. All I can do is write these songs based on what actually happened that might inspire somebody to think about the past in a different way ... or just pick up a damn book."