From No Chair to Co- Chair!

Dear Music Family,

 

Really? Has it really been 9 years?  I still remember the conversation that brought me to the Living Legacy Pilgrimage bus (LLP) that first time in 2010.

My friend Rev. Hope Johnson and her sister Janice Marie Johnson had just returned from having an incredible experience on a civil rights journey through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Hope said the only thing missing in the experience was that it did not include any of the music that fueled that movement. She asked if I would be willing to come on the next journey as a musician who could provide a spark and some historical background. The answer was easy! Yes!!

In my mind, it would just be “another gig where I had to sing some freedom songs as we visited those hallowed sites.” And as they say, “little did I know!”

Two days into the journey, my passion came alive and my heart knew that I had found a new mission. Like so many before and after, I was ready to join forces with those who have committed themselves to sharing the lessons and the hope that these pilgrimages bring alive. Quickly I went from being a hired musician… to serving as Director of Music for LLP… to being a member on the board as a resource for planning and co-leading these extraordinary journeys. On average, I’m on the bus twice per year, and I’ve helped plan even more.

Now, some nine years later, I find myself as one half of the new LLP leadership team. With my dear friend Jan Sneegas, I have accepted the position of Co-Chairperson of LLP for the next year. Jan and I are now charged, along with our new energized board, with leading this amazing organization into its next phase of new collaborations, more pilgrimages, and developing new ways to expand the mission. Traveling from Birmingham, to Selma, Marion, Montgomery, Jackson, Philadelphia, Memphis, and more, we continue to use the sites, songs, and stories to drive home important messages of resolve and hope.

Here is a two minute video example of such a moment on our Oct. 2017 LLP pilgrimage . We were blessed to have some time with the family of civl rights martyr Vernon Dahmer Sr, where his son Vernon Dahmer Jr, still a vibrant force, shared thoughts about their critical involvement in legacy of Mississippi civil rights history. https://youtu.be/7HuK0dvEROg

The work of crafting a vision with LLP has me singing with renewed inspiration. My other connections in music, education, history, and faith are also blossoming to make this challenging and often perplexing time in history feel like the best opportunity possible to bring about social change.

9 years!! One step and one bus ride at a time. We are all doing small things to keep the fabric of justice growing. We’ve had everyone from 9th grade to into their 90’s, and people from every kind of racial and faith (or not) background imaginable. If you haven’t yet joined us on a pilgrimage, put us on your list. http://www.uulivinglegacy.org

In peace, justice, and song,
Reggie

 

Keep the Faith

Dear Music Family,

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my last few newsletters have all followed a theme. The stories and pictures that I’ve shared with you have been framing the various aspects of the work that I do as musician, storyteller, and cultural ambassador. I started by telling you about the beginnings of my folk music career and how that journey has connected me to people throughout history in the building of community. Next I wrote about my work in schools as an educator, teaching students and staff about the Underground Railroad, the Modern Civil Right Movement, and how music informs and inspires our lives in the present day. The most recent newsletter highlighted the work I’m doing with Greg Greenway helping audiences face the challenges of race and diversity with Deeper Than the Skin.

I thank you for taking this journey with me, and I’m so grateful for your support both in your comments when we meet and for inviting me into your communities as we all work to make our world more as we believe it should be. Looking back at these posts, one word seems to rise that connects and encompasses them all, and that word is FAITH.

Not faith in the sense that drove my mother to take us to church on every possible opportunity in my childhood years (over the protests and whining of my sister and I), but faith in the sense of HOPE. It comes as no surprise to those of you who know me that the work I do is deeply rooted in the history and the spirit of the songs I write and the songs that I choose to sing.

One of my great joys is to be invited into churches, synagogues, and faith gatherings across religious lines. I love doing concerts, delivering sermons, leading workshops, and seeking connections through music that encourage dialogue and hope.

After so many of these gatherings, people come up and say, “I feel inspired, I feel some hope. But what can I do?” I often share the words of theologian Howard Thurman, who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

For me, music is the source of life and hope. It is my gift and it brings me alive day after day. It’s the gift that I’m blessed to share with you.

In peace, love, and hope,

Reggie

“Are These Stories True?

May/June News 2019

“Are these stories true?” The question came from a fourth grader who was seated at a desk at the back of the classroom. It was inspired by an age-appropriate but honest description of life in slavery. It’s a question that I’ve heard many many times, and as always, I smiled, and then in as calm a voice as I could muster, I said, “Yes, these stories are all true. I know it’s hard to believe. But you don’t have to believe me. You can look them up.”
This is work I love to do. I get great joy performing for thousands in groups small and large, and traveling the world singing at house concerts, in concert halls, festivals, and in famous art centers. There is nothing, however, like the magic of being in a local school somewhere in America talking about issues that many adults think we should hide from kids. My programs on the Underground Railroad, slavery, and Civil Rights are moments when I feel the most hope for the future of our world.

Kids are honest, open, curious, and more than happy to entertain themselves if you don’t happen to be interesting or if you seem like you’re trying to hide something. Whether I’m telling a story to 200 kindergartener-to-third graders, or I’m teaching “Wade In The Water” to the most cool, disinterested-looking 9th-through-12thgraders on the planet, my 40 years of engaging with students from every region of the country in concert, classroom, or during a residency has taught me that there’s a way in. The goal is somehow to discover the way in together, and music and story help students discover, engage, and then demonstrate their learning in ways that are not only fun, but universally effective.

In pictures and letters that come through the mail weeks after a performance, students show that lessons on Harriet Tubman, Henry “Box” Brown, or the marching children of 1963 Birmingham have hit the mark. Teachers report, “The students are still singing those songs, and they’ve made connections to present-day students in Parkland, Florida and Columbine, Colorado.” The connections between past and present become more than words on a page. One of my favorite pictures was drawn by a second grade girl after an Underground Railroad program. She drew herself crying, with a thought bubble showing a girl in slavery. I love the drawing because it demonstrated the emotional impact of slavery, her understanding of injustice, and her ability to reflect on it.

Some days I’m arriving with the janitor at 7am, others I’m doing workshops for educators, and still others I’m leaving a college classroom at 10:00 at night, but it’s all work that makes me feel vibrant and alive and the positive effect on my life and work is deeper than I can say.

In learning, joy, and song,
Reggie

 

 

Are You Folk or What?

Dear Music Family,

In an interview last week, a reporter asked me a question that I am often called to answer. “How do you describe who you are? Do people know you as a folk musician? As singer-songwriter? An educator? Or what?” It’s a question that I’ve been forced to answer many times over these 40+ years, and as a close friend recently pointed out, “I’m not sure your fans really know all that you do.”

To that end, I thought that I would share in these next few email visits the range of my various passions that have come to define what I call a career.

Most of you know me as a folk performer and singer-songwriter, and that is the lens through which I entered this world of art and expression. I learned to play guitar when I was 20 years old when a girlfriend challenged me to learn two chords. I had already been singing since I was three years old in the living room with my mom and sister, at church, and at school choirs. The seeds of my love of folk songs began in 2ndgrade when Charlotte Churn, my teacher, introduced us to the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and a young singer named Bob Dylan. How was I to know then that years later I would become friends with Pete and Toshi Seeger, Tom Paxton, and inspired by the work of Bernice Johnson Reagon, Harry Belafonte, and James TaylorI would be traveling the world over singing songs and telling stories in concert halls, at festivals, and to audiences of every background imaginable?

One of my favorite memories happened two years ago in Cologne, Germany. I stood on stage in a beautiful theater leading an audience of 1,000 Germans in singing Pete Seeger’s song Rainbow Race. If this journey has taught me anything, it is that music transcends barriers and unites people, and makes change and trust possible. Listening to their voices rise up, I knew that the choice of making music my life was important not only for me, but for the world.

It’s the same feeling that I had this week when I led 200 children in song at a school in Maryland. But that’s a story for the next installment. Until then, think about a special moment that music has created in your life and share that thought with a friend on your way to a music event in your area. Music will only heal the world if we share it with each other.

In peace, joy, and song,

Reggie

Collaboration

Dear Friends and Music Family!

It’s what I seem to love to do… so I looked it up!
Collaboration: the process of two or more people or organizations working together to complete a task or achieve a goal.  

I’ve spent most of my life working in collaboration. It started in childhood, living with my grandmother, my single-parent mom, and my sister, living in a house that my mom “Midge” and her sister “Sweetsie” helped my Nana and Grandpop to buy. They were the first Black family on the block, in a house bought in a collaboration with a White realtor and the first Black female judge in PA, The Honorable Juanita Kidd Stout. Through those years, we didn’t always have what we needed, but we had love. With the help of our church and neighborhood, we got by.

That effort continued in my adult life as I discovered that music was my inspiration and my way to express all that I love and hope to represent. As part of the duo Kim and Reggie Harris and many satisfying collaborations including with Pete Seeger, Matt Jones, Scott Ainslie, Pat Wictor, Magpie and many others, we raised our voices to stamp out hate and lift up hope.

I have also come to love the joy and power of singing and performing as a solo act. Music speaks to hearts and minds in ways that transforms our lives and makes our planet more safe, more sane, healthy and just. But working in collaboration remains one of my great joys.

Most of you know of my collaboration with Greg Greenway, my friend of 30 years. Deeper Than the Skin is a story/concert/dialogue that takes on the subject of race. We’re at a new and exciting place and are happy to announce that we are recording a CD of the presentation that will be available later this year! This CD comes at a challenging time in our nation, and has allowed us to engage in critical conversations with audiences from Maine to Florida, Oklahoma to Virginia.

Born 3 days apart we have forged a friendship that merges our different beginnings, White and Black, North and South, a descendant of slaves and a descendant of slave owners, into a collaboration that invites people to recall their stories and hear the stories of others. This is the only way that we will heal the racial divide. We invite you to watch for ways to purchase the CD (not yet available). We welcome you to join us when we’re in your area (see dates below, Reggie’s website, or visit the Deeper Than the Skin website) or you can invite us into your community by visiting this link (https://deeperthantheskin.com).

Malcolm X said, “We need more light about each other.” You can help us in our efforts to open hearts and create more light.

Turtles of Gratitude

Greetings Good People!

Here we are in Thanksgiving mode” again! It’s that time of year we set aside to focus on gratitude, self-reflection, and how the blessings of the last year might have escaped our notice. And given the pace of our lives in this 24/7 reality based whirlwind, it can be a good thing to have an imposed saved space for considering our lives and the good that has come our way. Otherwise, we well might reach year’s end with nary a thought to that side of life’s complexity. Maybe that’s why we gorge ourselves to numb the pain!

I’m sure that many of you have noticed, in public or in photos, that I wear a turtle on a chain around my neck. I actually have several turtle “friends” that share neck and heart duty. But I suspect that most of you don’t know how the ritual wearing of a turtle came to be a thing with me. It’s not something that I talk about often and if people don’t ask, it pretty much never comes up. But it was triggered by one of the most powerful change moments of my life and remains a very present reminder of life and the need to be present, thankful and aware.

Ten years ago last month, I was blessed with the gift of a new liver. At the time, I was near death from a liver ailment and the donation of an organ was the gift that saved my life. I woke up from that 7 hour operation with a chance to live and chase my dreams anew. Post transplant recovery was long and hard and after about a year, even though I was doing well physically, I found myself dragging through days of sadness and depression. I was struggling to find a perspective and balance that could keep me feeling grateful for this life-saving gift and the opportunities it now presented.

One day, walking through an art gallery in town, I came upon a carved deer antler turtle (an icon of life, gratitude and patience) that seemed to call out to me from its case. I asked to see it and in an instant, I felt like I had been connected to a source of energy and comfort that began to shift my mental framework. I quickly bought that little icon and started the ritual of putting it on every day as a reminder to recommit myself to a new sense of mission that, to this day, informs my life and my daily activity. Each day, by placing my turtle around my neck, I get to reconnect in gratitude with the gift I was given by the family of a 43 year old man whose death made a new start possible for me. I resonate with the flow of joy and gratitude that so many of you tell me you can hear in my music.

My better angels were working for me back then. And now, “Turtle” and “New Turtle” remind me to try to walk in rhythm with the grace, compassion, and the generosity of spirit that exists in our love and care for each other. It’s an action that reminds me to share the blessings forward. It has made for a very enlightening 10 years. And no, it doesn’t make every day “magic” or keep me from feeling challenged and/or overwhelmed at times. But it does remind me that I have a choice in how I see the things that come across my lens and most often, it allows me some grace in deciding how to face them.

The song “Better Angels” also came to me as a gift. It’s a song that speaks of a need to rebuild our sense of trust and commitment to each other. It speaks of the mission that so many of you share with me: of being grateful for that infusion of support, love, and friendship that helps us all to be better people and more thoughtful members of our families and communities.

So here at Thanksgiving Central  I find myself being grateful to , as my brother Greg Greenway says,  “realize that I have a job to do and the tools to do it.” Blessings, peace, and grace to you all. And let’s keep our better angels singing!

In thankfulness, joy, and song,
Reggie

https://youtu.be/t8z8R0d-wIM

Music and Hope…A Love Story

 

In 1969, somewhere around the middle of November, I heard James Taylor’s song ‘Fire and Rain’ on a late night WIBG radio program called “Americana Panorama”. It was a seminal moment for me, an eclectic black kid living in North Philly, who was going to a mostly white high school across town. The strains of his guitar and voice awakened something in me that I couldn’t explain. But having heard that song, a path to a life in music and an actively engaged citizenship was begun.

It would take years for that awakening to become a reality. That moment was enhanced and intensified as I, inspired by the music of Gordon Lightfoot, Aretha Franklin, Cat Stevens, Pete Seeger, Stevie Wonder, and countless others, experimented with those myriad influences that stirred the juices of creativity around and around in my body and brain. Murmurs of the spirituals and gospel songs of my youth simmered together with the classical and jazz songs I heard in school as I moved and swayed to the pop/rock classics that filled the airwaves. Together they freed me from what might have been the usual course for a kid of my background. It was a fusion of sound and message that lifted me into the ozone of boundless self-expression. Music, as it so often does, opened new windows of meaning for me and allowed me test my wings in a new atmosphere of artistic freedom. And with joy, my life and career dreams took flight.

And now, so many years removed from that fertile valley of inspiration, I find myself still deeply connected to the central truth of my discovery on that November night…That music heals, transforms and makes change possible.

That knowledge has served me well through years of struggle, challenge, joyful exploration, illness and triumph in the same way that it has fueled movements of social and historic change. And I find myself, with new and renewed vigor, embracing the causes of positive change in old and new ways without fear. And I’m trying everyday to share that light.

“I almost didn’t come here tonight. I’ve been so frustrated, angry and upset by everything in the news. I really didn’t want to leave the house. But when I saw the announcement of this program, I went online and I looked at your Facebook and webpage and what I saw gave me a little bit of hope. Your music spoke to me tonight, and I’m so glad I came.”

If these were the words spoken by just one person over the last few weeks that would be a marvelous thing. But I’ve heard similar statements from person after person in state after state…at intermission and at the end of shows as people go off into the night. I hear it at the end of my solo concerts and at the end of presentations of “Deeper Than the Skin” with Greg Greenway or in my concerts with Scott Ainslie, Kim Harris, Pat Wictor, Magpie, Emma’s Revolution or the many other artists with whom I share the value of song.

We live in a challenging time! Good news in the 24/7 news cycle often feels hard to come by. It’s hard to remember that WE are the good news. If we realize that we still have the ability to open our hearts to honest connections that bind us to each other and affect the shape of our world then the world will change for the better.  If not us, then who?

Whether it’s talking to a stranger on a plane or to the young people we love as we try to help them begin to define their dreams or make sense of what’s happening in the world; or when we take a moment to encourage someone to take an active role in our nation’s direction or volunteer an hour or two at a school, soup kitchen or community center. It’s one of the reasons we register and vote or spend time talking with friends and family to help them to regain their perspective and mental balance.

WE must be the change that we hope to see in the world.

Malcolm X said: “We need more light about each other. For light brings understanding, understanding brings love, love brings patience and patience brings unity.”

So just as my forebears set the example in the past, I now try to add my piece to the puzzle at a time when hope seems distant and faint. Every time I open my mouth to sing or I pick up that guitar, I’m back in my room on 17th street in Philly, rediscovering the joy, possibility and hope that music can bring.

This is the song in my heart; this is still very much my work in the world. I am happy and fortunate to have many partners in this work… the musicians and artists who have come to know that fame, money and personal glory are not enough reason to build and sustain a healthy grounded life and career.

As Bernice Johnson Reagon founder of “Sweet Honey in the Rock” said’ “Music changes the air!”  Music builds community and heals our hearts.  And blessed be… it can also help us change the world!

 

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

I just took the opportunity to watch and listen to The Most Reverend Michael Curry, the first African-American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, preach his righteous butt off at the occasion of the royal wedding yesterday. Bishop Curry, in 13 minutes of eloquence and spirit, laid out the message of what the power of love could make possible in the world, on many frames, to an audience that was clearly not used to, as we say “in the community!”, “havin’ church! It was sum’thin else again.

Today, on this day after THE day, I’ve heard and read so many people,  talking about, praising, philosophizin’ and recounting their impressions of this amazing sermon. I’ve also heard a few people saying that it didn’t “touch them” or “was too long” or that he “didn’t say enough about the state of this or that.”

Well, I will say this. To me, “Brother Bishop” PREACHED! That much can be said with clarity. And he told the truth without making it a diatribe or a political grandstand. He was, after all, in his own words “trying to get these two married!” in a day filled with pomp and circumstance and hours of event laden activity. He stayed in frame but made it verrrrrrry colorful.

He addressed the couple and the place of love in their choice of each other. And he acknowledged that their love was deep. He said, “I’m talking’ bout some POWER!! as the candles shook on the pulpit. He made the point that he was not just talking about two people loving each other. He was on fire with the spirit of what Dr King told us the love would be the “ONLY thing that will change this world!” He was not just talking about that thing that we so often toss off as a statement of making ourselves “happy” or personally fulfilled.

We are presently seeing some excellent examples of what greedy, selfish, colluding, power seeking, hateful, unloving disciples of the political and financial class are capable of unleashing on the world. So maybe it’s time to hear, AGAIN, the message that a world in which love is the measure of principle, action, belief and policy, will be one in which justice, abundance, fairness and equality are paramount. Where the actual policies and actions of the world would be transformed. Yes, he used the “T” word! A world where the kind of madness that rips families apart, makes it impossible for people to find healthcare and housing and widens the gap between rich and poor simply because it’s legal to do so and some people just want more, is not enough.

He delivered that message as the gathered dignitaries smiled, squirmed and fidgeted in their fancy clothes. I hope those powerful few truly heard the meaning in the words that resonated and reverberated in that vast cathedral yesterday. Cuz Brother Bishop, a man of action who has endured his own journey of challenging hate, prejudice and pain, put the word out for all to hear. His message was clear and his voice was filled with passion.

The Bible says, “If I speak with the tongues of men or of angels, but I do not have love, I am nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Sound familiar?

We live in a very loud and shrill world where evil and dysfunction trumpet the desires of those who would  lead us as they share their opinions and enforce three will nonstop. Where brash displays of self serving behavior is seen as normal. It’s way past time to infuse some love into this equation before we hit bottom on the humanity scale.

Thank you Meghan and Harry. The good bishop made you sit a little longer but it was a lovely service. And really quite stirring.

Happy Thanksgiving to All!!

On this Thanksgiving morning, I wake and give thanks:

For all who have not lost hope in a world that often makes the effort of keeping it alive so very difficult.

For cheesesteaks and the many places that make them… really well!

For no longer living in a place ALL the time with places that make cheesesteaks REALLY WELL!

For the family of the 43 year old man whose liver I now claim as my own. We share a bond that is beyond understanding despite not knowing each other.

For all of the very talented friends and musicians who inspire and cause me to remember how powerful music is and can be.

For the Sixers, Eagles and Phillies for teaching me OVER and OVER again that the joy of sport is not ALWAYS in the winning. But now that I get it, WIN!

For all of the sponsors, teachers, parents, music volunteers and festival presenters who allow me the joy of sharing what I do and believe in me enough to have me come to do it.

For the pioneers and unsung heroes of civil and human rights who refused to stand down, run away or cower in the face of danger and tyranny…who made a way outta NO way! We owe you for showing us how it’s done now that we have to do it

For my family and loved ones for loving me through all of the years of  being “somewhere else” on important dates. I’m trying to get that to be less the case.

For all of the children that I encounter who remind me that play, wisdom  and wonder are not defined by age.

For my mother, Helen Harris, for making sure I saw, felt and heard things I didn’t want to see, hear or feel… but now treasure.

For my sister Marlene for not giving up on me when I was sick and for listening to me when it was her turn! Thanks to Peter for hanging in there.

For my teachers, mentors, inspirational leaders and friends who have said the right things and live lives of passion and purpose so I could follow your lead.

For Kim for working hard to show that we meant what we said and sang about though the years and for continuing to work together cooperatively with respect and joy.

For another year of joyful support and love from all of you for hearing and responding to my music, past, present and future. And for helping me to build this amazing community of love.

For all who love in the presence of hate so that hate is not the default in this challenging world. This is not a rehearsal. We are on the road together and we will overcome!

 

High in the Air and “Ready to Go!”

Hi Friends and Music Family!
I’m writing this to you from high in Canadian airspace. Now some say that musicians are high all the time, but we don’t need to go there.

I’m making my way back from Calgary, AB where I was performing this weekend with my buds Greg Greenway and Joe Jencks. We played at the fabulous Calgary Folk Club. A true venue of delight if there ever was one. (And there are several!)

By now, many of you know that I’m making my first solo CD! If this is news to you, I’m happy to say that’s it’s a project that’s taking shape in a most remarkable way. After our gig in Calgary, Greg and I are hustling back to the US to push this CD project to the next phase. I’m excited to get this CD done and into your hands and ears. So, Monday it’s ON!

And OMG!!! I can’t believe who’s coming in this week to add tracks to two, maybe three songs. The astonishingly talented Gina Forsyth is staying in the East after NERFA just to do this for me. I’m beyond grateful! If you don’t know Gina’s music, you should check her out in action on YouTube.

Gina was THE person I heard in my head when I began writing the song “Ready to Go!”  And she will also be playing on the song “Hickory Hill,” which will be one of the key moments on the CD. That track also features beautiful cello by Michael Ronstadt and ethereal guitar tracks by Pat Wictor.

That song recounts the day, about 6 years ago, when I visited the site of the Hickory Hill plantation in Ashand, VA, and walked the land with my cousin, Lisa Wickham Haskell. Here’s a picture of my extended family.

IMG_0031

What a powerful, heart shifting experience it’s been for all of us. Here in the picture is Lisa, (on my left) her sister, Wallis Raemer, (on the right) their brother George, his wife Mary, and Lisa’s partner, William Espinosa.

Walking with Lisa on the land led to this final verse;

So now our stories come together,                                                                               across these fields of broken dreams,                                                                              and the blood that binds us all together                                                                              is, indeed, much thicker than seems.

Hickory Hill, we’re on hallowed ground,                                                                     walkin’ side by side, wonderin’ what we’ve found.                                                        Can you see the questions in my eyes now that we are home again?

Yes, they are White! And I am Black. But due to the twists and turns of history and slavery, we are connected to each other. I am a Harris and a Hewlett, but I am also a Wickham. And these are some of my Wickham cousins. We have been getting to know each other for the last 8 years after… well, that’s a long story. Suffice to say that we are embracing this journey of discovery with open hearts and arms.

This project has already opened my heart wider than I expected. I’m hoping that it will do the same for you.

Thanks for taking this journey with me. With your support, we are on our way, and I’m Ready to Go.

Reggie Harris