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,


“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,



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,