Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Unaccompanied gospel and black music group, formed '73 in Washington DC by Bernice Johnson Reagon (b '42, Albany GA) as part of the vocal workshop of the Black Repertory Theater Company. Reagon had earlier been active in the Civil Rights movement in Albany, from '62 sang as a member of the Freedom Singers of the SNCC (Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee) against the background of the events detailed in Taylor Branch's Parting The Waters: Martin Luther King And The Civil Rights Movement 1954--63 '88. The SNCC ensemble of Cordell Hull Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Rutha Harris and Charles Neblitt is represented on Sing For Freedom: The Story Of The Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs released by Smithsonian Folkways '90 and on one track on the Vanguard anthology Gospel At Newport. SNCC Freedom Singers also feature on Crossroads: Southern Routes -- Music of the American South on Smithsonian Folkways '96 singing 'Woke Up This Morning With My Mind On Freedom'. Reagon began collecting source material on black culture from urban and rural African-Americans, later worked as the director of black culture at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC and in due course was appointed Curator Emerita there; she also sang with the Harambee Singers in late '60s, all black women, a precursor of Sweet Honey. She recorded Give Your Hands To Struggle '75 on Paredon, subtitled 'the evolution of a freedom fighter' (an earlier solo album had already appeared called Folk Songs: The South on Folkways). Her PhD dissertation for Howard University called Songs Of The Civil Rights Movement 1955--1964: A Study In Culture History also appeared '75.

Though their debut album Sweet Honey In The Rock (Flying Fish) '76 owed much to political struggle, its primary focus was on the greater humanity, addressing issues of racism, sexism, the rights of the handicapped, the destruction of the environment due to big business, pollution and political pressures, and kindred issues. The debut featured Evelyn Harris, Patricia Johnson, Carol Lynne Maillard, Reagon and Louise Robinson; their unaccompanied choral style was defined from the outset. Their 'A Woman' from B'lieve I'll Run On ... See What The End's Gonna Be '78 on Redwood (named Best Women's Album of '79 by USA's National Association of Independent Record Distributors) also appeared on the triple-LP soundtrack to No Nukes '79 on Asylum, though they were not in the film. Reagon prepared and wrote the notes for three-volume Voices Of The Civil Rights Movement, Black American Freedom Songs, 1955-- 1965 for the Smithsonian Institution '80. Sweet Honey's Good News (Flying Fish '81/Cooking Vinyl '89 UK release) included Reagon's 'Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto', later performed by Billy Bragg (The Peel Sessions '91 on Strange Fruit contains a good interpretation of that song). From '77 Sweet Honey experimented with having their concerts signed for the hearing-impaired, getting such a positive reaction that they recruited a permanent 'signer' using ASL (American Sign Language) for concerts.

They were the subject of documentary film Gotta Make This Journey '83, which included 'endorsements' by Angela Davis, Holly Near and Alice Walker among others. We All ... Everyone Of Us '83 on Flying Fish USA/Spindrift UK incl. 'Study War No More', later incl. on the 'songs for survival' compilation Out Of The Darkness '84 on Fire on the Mountain, with tracks by Dick Gaughan, Near, Pete Seeger and others. Feel Something Drawing Me On and The Other Side '85 were both on Flying Fish USA/Spindrift UK; by this time they consisted of Ysaye Barnwell, Evelyn Harris, Aisha Kahill, Reagon and Yasmeen Bheti Williams as the 'singing unit'. Reagon acted as one of the music consultants for the six-part TV documentary series Eyes On The Prize in '86; released gospel-grounded solo album River Of Life, Harmony: One '87 on Flying Fish, on which she sang all the parts herself. In '88 Breaths was a compilation, Live At Carnegie Hall appeared on Flying Fish USA/Cooking Vinyl UK and they contributed to A Vision Shared on Columbia, a tribute album to the work of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, singing Leadbelly's 'Sylvie' and 'Gray Goose' and joining in the finale, Guthrie's 'This Land Is Your Land' with Pete Seeger and Doc Watson. Barnwell produced the six-cassette set Singing In The African American Tradition '89 on Homespun with George Brandon, a course teaching 'choral and congregational vocal music' in the African-American singing tradition. All For Freedom '89 on Music for Little Singers marked a departure, a collection aimed at children, including Civil Rights and Georgia Sea Island songs and African-derived stories, assisted by children from Washington's Adam Elementary School. In This Land '92 on Earthbeat brought them back to social commentary incl. cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie's 'Now That The Buffalo's Gone' and a reprise of 'Give Your Hands To Struggle' from that earlier solo album. Still On The Journey '93 on Earthbeat celebrated their twentieth anniversary. Reagon put together series Wade In The Water for USA National Public Radio, in part the source for four-vol. series for Smithsonian Folkways with the same generic title. African American Spirituals: The Concert Tradition, African American Congregational Singing: Nineteenth Century Roots, African American Gospel: The Pioneering Composers and African Community Gospel made up the four volumes released commercially and with supporting literature in an edition for schools '94. I Got Shoes '94 on Music for Little People was another children's collection; Sacred Ground '96 on Earthbeat returned to inspiration; two-CD Selections 1976-- 88 '97 on Flying Fish was an excellent compilation. Perhaps their greatest achievement has been to provide a voice for those still carrying on the Civil Rights movement world-wide while keeping to their black gospel and African American musical roots; their history was celebrated in an oral history collection We Who Believe In Freedom '93.