Passed down. A blind man, whose grandmother was sold as a slave on a block in Americus, passed along a song he learned from her called “Steal Away.” Another songwriter, named Ella Baker, wrote a lament about civil rights workers murdered in 1964 in Mississippi.
Tragedies and pain passed down through generations, through music.
“Really within the African-American experience, you could sing. … You could own any story floating in you. And this has to do with every moment being special. If every moment is sacred and if you are amazed and in awe most of the time, when you find yourself breathing and not crazy, then you are in a state of constant thankfulness, worship and humility.”
So says Albany native Bernice Johnson Reagon, in a 2007 interview with national radio journalist Bill Moyers. Reagon, who was part of the Freedom Singers in the 1960s, will perform through word and song June 4 in Columbus. The event is being sponsored jointly by MidTown Inc., The Columbus Museum and The SpiritHouse Project, a social justice organization founded and directed by civil rights activist Ruby Nell Sales.
Reagon has said she first found her voice after being jailed in Albany. She was arrested for taking part in demonstrations.
“I could barely speak. In the first mass meeting, they asked me to sing. I sang the song ‘Over My Head/I Hear the Freedom in the Air,’ but my voice was totally different. It was bigger than I’d ever heard before.
“It had this ringing in it,” she said. “It filled all the space of the church.”
Because of her arrest, Bernice Johnson — who at the time was not married to her husband Cordell Reagon — was expelled as a student from Albany State College, now Albany State University. She then became part of the Freedom Singers, a group of black youths who performed throughout the country to raise funds for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Founded in 1962, the Singers also helped inform audiences about the grassroots organizing campaigns expanding in communities across the South, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Freedom Singers
Most freedom songs were common hymns or spirituals familiar to the southern black community; the lyrics were often modified to reflect the political aims of the civil rights movement rather than the spiritual aims of a congregation. The songs not only reflected the views and values of the movement’s participants but also, in the case of the Freedom Singers, helped to share them with a national audience.
After witnessing the effect of singing in mass meetings in Albany, folk singer Pete Seeger suggested that a touring group might help raise funds for civil rights.
The Freedom Singers formed under the leadership of SNCC field secretary Cordell Reagon, a veteran of the sit-in movement in Nashville, where music played a similar role. He was assisted by Rutha Mae Harris and Bernice Johnson. Reagon and Johnson married in 1963. She has a daughter, Toshi Reagon, and a son, Kwan Tauna.
Over the next nine months, the group traveled 50,000 miles through 40 states in a Buick station wagon, performing at colleges, elementary and high schools, concert halls, living rooms, jails, political rallies, and the March on Washington in August 1963. The group disbanded that same year.
For Bernice Johnson Reagon, the daughter of a Baptist minister, the music continued to flow. She founded the Harambee Singers in 1966 in Atlanta. She left that group in 1970. In 1973, she helped found the all-female a capella group Sweet Honey In the Rock, which like the Freedom Singers communicates social issues through song and word. Sweet Honey received numerous Grammy nominations. The group continues to perform. Reagon retired from the group in 2004.
Sweet Honey In the Rock’s name comes from a song, based on Psalm 81:16, which tells of a land so rich that when rocks were cracked open, honey flowed from them. Reagon has said that this first song in which four women blended their voices was so powerful, there was no question what the name of the group should be. The group sang at the White House on Feb. 18.
“I was born among singing. I don’t know of breathing or eating, without singing,” Reagon said at a presentation April 10 at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I don’t mean from the radio — a wonderful invention — or from the iPod, another wonderful invention. I mean it like walking and talking, like the air you breathe, so you didn’t define it in any particular way, because it was woven inside the you you came to know, the house you grew up in, the yard you played in, the school you went to, the church you went to. It was singing by the people around you.”
Sales of the SpiritHouse Project was among the third generation of black youths fighting for equality. Sales had heard of Reagon as a young adult but didn’t meet her until both were working much later in the Washington, D.C., area. They’ve been friends about 15 years.
Like Reagon before her, Sales was part of SNCC.
“The women (of Honey In the Rock) kept the memory alive - the struggles,” said Sales, who will introduce Reagon here June 4. “She was the medium who knew 19th century black America and transmitted their songs and stories... She’s one of the greatest voices, and one of the most multi-dimensional voices, of the 21st century.”
Through the years, Reagon, now 66, balanced her music with academics. She earned a bachelor’s from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1970. She has a Ph.D. from Howard University, from which she graduated in 1975. Her concentration was in U.S. history, specifically in African-American history, cultural and oral history methodologies.
Reagon has taught two years at Spelman in Atlanta is now a professor emeritus at Howard University, from which she received a Ph.D. In 1974, she became a folklorist, curator and program director at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C, and was named curator emeritus there in 1993. She retired from the Smithsonian after 20 years.
The June event is the third lecture sponsored by MidTown Inc., since 2008. The first two were held at the Cunningham Center at Columbus State University, and were more business-oriented. This one, with the arts focus, will bring together yet another audience.
It is the third public event in about a month for SpiritHouse, and the first with the museum and Mid-Town collaborations, in what Sales hopes is many more.
“One thing that spurs community redevelopment is the arts,” Tomlinson said. “Authentic voices from the community are organic, like Auburn Avenue used to be in Atlanta, or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Bernice Johnson Reagon fits into this. We’ll be able to see how diversity is the strength of any community.”
By passing the stories along.
Allison Kennedy can be reached at 706-576-6237.