Kevin Farrell is Associate Professor of English at Radford University, where he teaches courses in both composition and literature. His research interests include popular music, modernism, postmodernism, and Irish literature, particularly the fiction of James Joyce. His work has appeared in the James Joyce Quarterly, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, and New Hibernia Review.
This study explores the political rhetoric of Rhiannon Giddens’ Freedom Highway, contextualizing Giddens’ narratives of subaltern American experience in reference to high modernist conceptions of history. Released in 2017, Freedom Highway presents a portrait of American history, drawing conscious connections between various modes of white supremacy (slavery, Jim Crow, domestic terrorism, and contemporary police violence) and various modes of black resistance (Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter). As Kevin suggests, while Freedom Highway is not, strictly speaking, a concept album, its overarching theme is the human cost of oppression, manifested most powerfully in its accounts of stolen and murdered children. For Giddens, this theme connects generations of families across centuries, and she uses the past as means to comment upon current events, construing history in personal and familial, rather than abstract, terms. While her approach has roots in both folk and popular music traditions, Giddens, consciously or not, also echoes conceptions of history and memory found in the work of T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and James Joyce, so that her vision of personalized history, oppression, and resistance offers a Twenty-First century American counterpart to Joyce’s “nightmare of history” from Ulysses. By applying modernist literary ideas to a contemporary work of popular music, I hope to reveal how Giddens writes, rewrites, imagines, and reimagines American history to challenge the American present.
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