My COVID Connections of Note

Hey Friends!

Got a minute? I’ve got a question for you.

Here in the waning/not so waning weeks of this pandemic, that just won’t seem to go away, I’m thinking about the various upsides that might have occurred for you in that VERRRRRY obvious downside of the limbo we’ve all been living through. (And yes, we can choose not to discuss the many reasons for that dilemma in this particular moment!)

I’m wondering if your time in Pandematory allowed you to reconnect with any friends with whom you were out of touch or simply just didn’t see often enough? Maybe you wrote a note to someone whose page or name popped up on your screen on any random day and experienced the joy of having a new stream of conversation emerge? Or maybe you unexpectedly found some long-lost friend or comrade on a social media get-together and shared a few exceptional pandemic Zooms catching up? Did they blossom into something new and deeper that you are now keeping alive? Well, as it turns out, all those things were true for me.

And, by the way, it’s fine if you just hunkered down, binge watched some time-wasting series of shows and got through every day as best you could! It’s a no shame zone here.

All through this hard time I managed to, with some degree of effort, desire, encouragement, and a fair amount of dumb luck, get blessed with several friendship reconnections from unexpected sources. We got busy talking and helped each other with everyday struggles, recipes, swapped songs and wrote music, started radio shows, shared information about technology, encouraged each other through the tough news of life and in those sullen moments worked to lift each other’s spirits. As a result, I’ve come out of the void with a new appreciation of friendships, old and new.

One of the most unexpected connections was with my friend Alastair Moock, who I met years ago when I was visiting the home of dear friends and he came home from college as the boyfriend of their daughter Jane. Suddenly there was a new brash and creatively gifted musical type in the mix who would also become a professional musician.  I’ve had the pleasure of watching as Alastair and Jane got married and began building their lives and careers and struggling through the process of life together and the challenges of raising a family. He and I would periodically exchange notes, calls and news as musicians and activists who found themselves traveling in connected but different circles, so our actual physical connections were rare. He’s a fine award-winning songwriter now who takes on many of the same issues as I do in life and career focus. Alastair does so in remarkably creative ways that add to the mix of our profession quite admirably and we have appreciated each other’s work from distance.

But then COVID happened and without warning, I got an email from him in June 2020 that broke a few years of radio silence. That email opened the door to our having some conversations around sussing out the impact of the raging national events shaking our nation and the world during the pandemic. We took a deep dive into the burning issues of race and injustice that were triggered by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others as well the various statue and voting rights protests across the nation.

We also engaged on a topic close to our career paths: the longstanding lack of recognition, discrimination and lack of acknowledgment that continues to frustrate artists of color in the recording and performing industry. (The Recording Academy had recently announced yet another slate of all-white nominees in the Children’s Music category and Alastair was one of them. This led to some soul searching and some deep conversations between he and others in a group called the “Family Music Forward” (FamilyMusicForward.org) that led to some bold action. 

As a result of those talks, Alastair and a few other White artists chose to act by turning back their nominations and joined forces with Black artists they respected to start a course of actions for change. Meanwhile, he and I began to explore a variety of actions we could do related to music’s role in creating more awareness, diversity and equity as a way forward.

Our conversations led to a collaboration we now call “Race and Song: A Musical Conversation!” This song and story-based exploration of history and current events, one we have both championed for years through the powerful tool of music and story, has allowed us to discuss the complicated issues of race, class, gender and intersectionality, at first in schools with students and staff and then branching into community forums, has turned out to be a real gift for focusing the energy and frustration that was present as the administration in office pile on the prejudice and hate. 

The resulting show has evolved into a concert offering of great depth and meaning. One of the first to engage with us was the Charles River School’s Head of Performing Arts Mica Moellering who wrote to say, “We brought ‘Race and Song’ to our entire school community, and it was a fantastic success. Reggie and Alastair were incredibly kind, open, and generous, and their beautiful video provided a jumping-off point for important and timely conversations.”

It’s clear that without the challenges of the last two years, the horrific events and spirit deadening onslaught of aggressions, coupled with the downtime to reflect, alone and together, this inspired collaboration would probably never have occurred. With the difference in our ages, life narratives and perspectives, I find this partnership with Alastair to be a marvelous vehicle for learning and a great complement to the work I have been doing the last 6 years with my friend Greg Greenway in our presentation, “Deeper Than The Skin.” This program takes on many similar issues but seen through a different set of lenses. Inspired and energized by the work, Alastair and I are setting our sights on continuing to offer and grow this phenomenal program with schools, communities of faith and societal concern and with people taking on the task of reclaiming and redefining our relationships, building a new way forward.

 I hope that the friendships and connections you have rekindled during the pandemic have helped you to find some insight into making what WAS positive even better. Or perhaps, it has given you and your friends more courage to shed ideas or actions that needed to be left behind. And maybe you have also taken the chance to have conversations about justice, injustice, and to take action with members of your families in ways that are making good changes  in the world. If you feel like need a push or a hand, check us out at:https://moockmusic.com/race-and-song-a-musical-conversation/.  

We are all in need of more willing hands on the freedom plow.

In peace, action, and song,
Reggie

 

The Essence of Hope!

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The Essence of Hope

March came in like a wildebeest, and I’ve been on the run ever since! I barely know where to start sharing.  I released a music video of my song “It’s Who We Are!” from my new CD On Solid Ground. https://youtu.be/ll6S4LgjmU8w

That was quickly followed by a fall on some black ice that led to a fractured wrist. (I’m healing well, thank you). In addition, like so many of you, I’ve had to mourn the deaths of several close friends and associates which is an occurrence that will continue for all the wrong reasons. Due to the fall, my scheduled CD release concert was twice postponed (now rescheduled for May 22nd (https://www.8thstep.org/events) with several great friends in tow. My 2nd COVID vaccine happened against the backdrop of more shootings, scandals, and political upheavals in our divided nation, which only last week culminated in Derek Chauvin’s conviction, which is more accountability than justice. Our world is a mess. The work of change continues and we continue to look for ways to make sense and headway in a true conflicted nation.
Looking back at that full plate, I probably should be depressed. But I’m not, and here’s why:
 
All spring, I have had multiple opportunities to do one of the things I love the most: spend hours doing Q&A’s and residencies with students of all ages on Zoom. We get to discuss the content of videos I’ve made on the Underground Railroad and Modern Civil Rights Movement and other topics. I love how honest and open those conversations are. The kids ask me questions about myself and of course, about my views on history and the world today. They always want to know how old I am (they often GASP!!) and ask why I love music so much, what inspired me to learn about our topics, and if Harriet Tubman knew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One student wanted to know the color of my house! (The he told me what color HIS was!!)
 
But over the last few weeks as I was balancing my approach to addressing the confusing concerns of the world, one question kept popping up. This question came from youngsters and from college students who asked it with the same intensity: “With all that you know, how do you stay so hopeful?” In each case I had to be honest and say that I’m not always hopeful. I told them that, just like everyone else, I have days when I’m not sure that everything will work out. And I’m a firm believer that you don’t lie to young people! When they ask a serious question, they deserve serious and honest answers. I don’t want to tell them that the world is safe when we all know that it is not. That’s real and it’s our job to help them deal appropriately with what is true. So we go there!!
 
As part of our discussions, I share that many of the songs I sing or write are aimed at giving us all the strength and power to face dangerous issues and hard times. The spirituals were made up by people who came through times that were just as tough, angry, and uncertain as anything we are presently living through. They created songs that left messages that said, “The essence of hope is that we have each other and together we can change whatever needs changing.” I try to do the same things with my songs.
 
So as we share the songs and stories of those people from the past, stories of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Frederick Douglass I suggest that they look at those lives as examples of how to shape their own paths in this world we are building. I watch their eyes light up and fill those Zoom boxes as we sing “This Little Light of Mine” in a rowdy, chaotic finish to our glorious time together. They all scream “GOODBYE,” and my heart gets filled with just a little more hope.
 
You and I, we are older and hopefully a bit wiser. We have our communities, our experiences and memories and more importantly, we have each other. There is work to do, but together, we know that we can change that which needs changing. And like those people from the past, we have music to keep us strong until we do what needs to be done.
 
In action, love, and song,
Reggie

In action, love, and song,
Reggie

 

Why I’m Not Scared

WHY I’M NOT SCARED (Here me out!)
I wasn’t gonna write this! In fact, I talked myself out of it at least five separate times. I said to myself, “There’s just too much stuff out there. Who will read it or HEAR it in the way you intend?” That was before my friend and colleague Annette Marquis from The Living Legacy Project sent this article. After reading it (not much of the info was new, but it still hit home) thousands of heartfelt and anxiety filled comments and posts on Facebook, Twitter and in every other social and political corner available really pushed me over the edge. Each one raised the level, saying how scared, anxious, terrified, nervous, unable to function and close to collapse people are feeling. And I hear you!
But it made me think, “Now you HAVE to do it.” So here goes.

(Sorry about the length but I promise you that I did edit it down as far as I could.)

Tonight I wrote a Facebook post that said. “Take a deep breath, friends. We’re gonna be alright!” Many seemed to think that I was saying “Don’t worry, it will all come out like we want it to. Tomorrow goodness will be restored.” Many responses seemed to indicate that I was trying to sooth nerves by guaranteeing that “ALL WILL BE WELL!” That was NOT my intended message and I’m sorry I was not clear. It MAY go that way. Numbers seem to indicate that chances are good that it will… maybe even GREAT! But I have no crystal ball and I sho nuff don’t trust the “numbers. I am not a fan of polls. No, I was speaking from a source of wisdom passed to me by people who have survived more than 400 years of having to sweat this stuff out, vote for the “lesser choice’ again and again, as the prudent thing and then watch other people be OK when we ain’t OK.

Yes, this nation is divided. Many say that it’s as much on more so as it was at the time of the civil war. And that is all true for much the same reason. Donald Trump and the GOP have classically made race, division and hate the dividing line for citizens to choose a direction for our nation. And just as in that scurrilous time, white people are having to choose which side they are on. For people of color it’s always been about survival. The choice involves other issues of greed, class and “otherness” as well and in truth, Trump has managed to co-op some people of color with his lies and promises that were a staple of the ruling class during slavery. But he has mostly convinced many whites that he is the savior of their very existence and they are flocking to that message in trucks, cars and vans with alarming emotional fervor. So now, as many white people have been stirred, nudged or violently shaken awake, that message has created a situation where they have reason to fear and now realize that with his staunch hatred of liberals and “others” he and his henchies will eventually come for them, to bully, batter, kidnap the “too loud leaders” and push their proverbial bus off the road.

I’m hopeful that this gives more clarity on why I am not finding fear to be useful. And maybe this won’t help you to feel better this week or this month… maybe not even until all the dust settles on this the latest incarnation of political, financial and racist/sexist trauma. Perhaps a ways down the road it will kick in after we think we know where we stand and are able to take a good breath and see a clear path to cleaning up this swamp… for real. Maybe this will help some of you frame your actions in the next phase when the forces of power, greed and hate are continuing their challenge to the very nature of our existence. But one thing is true: Now that you’ve seen what you’ve seen, it will be harder NOT to see it when it shows its ugly head again.

Please allow me to quickly thank all of you who have been at this for as long or longer than me. You who understand that fear and anxiety are tools that the power brokers in the world use to keep the less powerful off balance, occupied and easier to control. Donald Trump might seem like a fool but he fully understands how the game is played. So does Mitch McConnell, Robert Barr, Kevin McCarthy, Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Alexander Putin, Ann Coulter, Lindsey Graham, the Koch Brother (yes, one died) Clarence Thomas and all those greedy 1 percenters (and their wannabee trailers) who enjoy all the privileges while the rest of us feel the burn.

To all of you who have internalize the struggle to the point that you know the rich and powerful are simply never going to give up trying to get their way, (regardless of who wins tomorrow) and have committed yourselves to stay in the game win, lose or whatever, kudos. We all know that they will be as relentless at controlling the narrative as they’ve always been in this nation and that they will try to put a good face on while they organize the next maneuver. Those people are ready to go regardless of the outcome. And they will not consider, in any way, how we feel about it.

Yes, we will be joyful or exhausted, relieved or exasperated, happy or angry, as fits the good or bad news. But just as civil rights pioneer Flonzie Brown Wright, (the first African American woman elected to office in Jim Crow Mississippi years ago) said to us in May in our Living Legacy series on voting rights, we’ve got to just keep on keepin’ on! Asked ”Do you ever get frustrated and just want to quit?” she replied, “You know, (she may have said “Honey!”) I quit this job every night. But in the morning, I remember that I took a vow to work for justice when I was 16 years old. So every day I put on my shoes and get back to work!”

That’s the same kind of resolve and fierce persistence that pushed Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, Jackie Robinson, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, C.T. Vivien, Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Fred Shuttlesworth, Vernon and Ellie Dahmer, John Lewis, and millions of others including Eleanor Roosevelt, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mahatma Gandhi, Pete and Toshi Seeger and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to walk in the ways of justice.

Yes, friends, I am concerned, agitated, full of righteous rage and fired up and at times, worn down. I’m working the self-care thing too. But I am not scared!

We have seen millions of young people embrace a new energy and create strategies of revolution and millions of people of all races, backgrounds, persuasions and in some cases, political opposition come awake and alive to take to the streets, where many of them still are. They march, tweet, organize, chant, lie down in the streets and say “NO MORE!

We have seen corporations and companies (perhaps engaging in enlightened self-interest) release statements that say Black Lives Matter and state that no children of any background deserve to be separated from their parents or locked in cages. We’ve watched millions who have begun addressing our hate filled and divisive past, including my own family of Wickhams and Hewletts, acknowledging that they… women, children, men, agender, bigender and nonbinary alike are ready to shape a new vision of America. We’ve seen Moms, dads, able-bodied and person of varying abilities willingly face armed thugs posing as authorities and be gassed, shot, illegally arrested and injured as statues and symbols of hate have been toppled to the ground while calling for redress and accountability.

We have all painfully seen our fellow citizens needlessly die as we’ve been isolated and lied to and had our own lives placed in jeopardy by a government that said openly they are willing to sacrifice as many as it takes to help them resume making money without establishing the needed scientific protocols for our safety. We’ve watched athletes and entertainers stop the game and the show and share their time, their money, resources and their platform in support of justice as doctors, nurses, teachers factory workers and first responders have selflessly offered and sacrificed themselves in service to us.

We watched a man kill dispassionately kill another man in eight minutes and 46 seconds and collectively lost our breath. We have seen inhumanity explained away as “normal human behavior.” And we are tired, stress and worn. But I am not scared. I am committed, enraged and disgusted yet also hopeful and ready.

I do not write this because I am confident that things will go the way I believe they should. Donald Trump and the GOP have told and shown us for months that they plan to steal this election. They don’t even bother to deny it. But they’re also trying to steal our will and in the spirit of those who have gone before and the spirit of those who have risen up in the last six months I absolutely refuse to let them own my will or incite my fear. I invite you to flip the fear response and reorganize your energy for the ongoing mission to turn this nation around.

I know that for some of you this will be a new and at times a totally uncertain and frustrating endeavor. I’m with you and I love that you have signed on to ride this train. Feel free to admit that you need some guidance and feel free to let go of the guilt if you just climbed on board. But as Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock sang, “We who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.” We’re just getting started. Joe and Kamala will need to hear our voices WHEN they break through. (See, I am hopeful!)

And when you need a break, a supportive word, song or a hand to hold (virtually or otherwise) know that we got your back and your side. But let’s do this in the spirit of Fanny Lou Hamer who said “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” How bout that for a mantra?

In Solidarity and Song,
Reggie Harris
Four ways ‘Jim Crow 2.0’ is shaping this presidential election
https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/01/us/voter-suppression-jim-crow-blake/index.html

New Songs From Hopeville!

Dear Music Family,

I’m sitting in my living room, socially distancing in isolation tonight as I’m watching the Democratic National Convention on TV.  Despite all of the conflicting, depressing and heart wrenching news stories that stream from media sources every day, I still find myself filled with a new level of energy and joy as the diversity of colorful, hope-filled faces appear on my TV screen. Here in primetime, there is evidence of the rising sense of awareness that continues to make its presence known in cities and towns across America. We are seeing the promise of a new America… one that cares about ALL people and that is willing to stand in the streets to take down the signs and symbols of hate and oppression. This is the spirit of change that has filled my heart and mind with song.

As a result, my musician sense has come alive in a vibrant way. Since landing at home in March, I’ve been inspired to write seven new songs… some of which you’ve heard if you have joined me in my online performances. They have come from a very deep place of personal reflection and were born out of the many conversations that i’ve been blessed to have with friends, colleagues and the audience members who made contact in this time of crisis over the last 5 months. I’ve also used this new landscape to make connections with people from around the world.

One of the new things that rose out of this time has been the timely reaction of my Living Legacy Project board which voted, courageously to cancel two filled buses headed to Alabama and Mississippi before the real danger of the pandemic was known. reacting to my idea that we shift our “in person energy” to an online presence, we creatively hatched a Zoom series that has proven to be powerful and informative, albeit in a different way, as our pilgrimages. As a result, many of you have also joined me for the monthly series Voting Rights: The Struggle Continues, that we put forward. If you were with us last month, you saw four amazing young activists who shared their thoughts and their voting rights activity with poise and confidence demonstrating once again that much of this new spirit of inspiration is fueled by our youth. (Click http://www.uulivinglegacy.org to go to the Living Legacy website, and choose the Watch the Video link on the middle left that sends you to the Living Legacy Project YouTube Channel. For the young activists, choose Program 3. There is music and a general introduction first, and I start introducing these inspirational activists about minute 23:00. Or you can click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4e-GYR6Kl-k to go straight to the video.)

The stories and thoughts that you have shared in response on my website, Facebook and Twitter have me really looking forward to our next panel gathering on Tuesday, August 25th (next week!). This one features three powerful women (two descendants of historic figures in voting rights history and the Vice President of the Minneapolis City Council) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. I encourage you to join us for this historic night in the spirit of C. T. Vivian and US Rep. John Lewis and in the renewed hope that is framed by Joe Biden’s courageous nomination of Kamala Harris for Vice President. These and other events have inspired me to write new songs: “On Solid Ground,” “Let’s Meet Up Early,” and my latest new offering “We Will Never Go Back.”

Since you’ve read this far, you get to be among the first to know: I’ll be hitting the studio in September to record a new CD with songs that speak to our new commitments to rise as one.  The songs will follow my 2018 release “Ready to Go” in making a statement about the mission of creating a community of positive presence…one that supports the need for justice and principle in a nation/world that has allowed hate and greed to rule for too long.

This is a challenging time. We have much work to do. But with all of us working together, and music at our center we have no excuse but to rise up for justice in freedom’s name.

“We will not rest till the storm is over…we will not lay this burden down… we will keep each other strong..we will love and carry on till we stand, all together on solid ground. We are enough to get the job done!  https://vimeo.com/409236657

In peace, song, and going to the polls!

Reggie

 

Statues, Lives, and Things That Matter!

Greetings Good People.
I’ve been “off the road” now for 3 plus months and the view from here is almost as uncertain as when this crazy COVID-19 journey started. I mean, I’m well, healthy, and have most of the particulars sorted out… (how to shop, how to avoid the virus, how to clean the house, and how to get online concerts ONLINE!).

My last date in Buffalo, NY performing for students at Saint Mary’s School for the Deaf seems 5 lifetimes ago as we have all crossed that boundary into this brave new isolation-filled world full of virtual concerts, podcasts, Zoom sessions, and platforms each with their own benefits, quirks, and protocols, all designed to bring us closer together without getting TOO close for comfort or health. And then just as we were getting somewhat used to the distance and extended time online (with most of us hoping that it would soon be over!)… BOOM, the world exploded.

The sorrow, suffering, and unrest caused by COVID-19 was powerfully ramped up by the brutal murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd… three African Americans whose deaths have become catalysts for change.

In the aftermath of that explosion I have found myself more in demand and more engaged with calls for concerts, interviews, and requests for comment, conversation and activity than I have been in some time. That brief hiatus in March to gather my senses and bearings is clearly over. And now the world is on fire for change.

Part of that change took place last Monday night in Richmond, VA where, in the midst of protests, arrests and uprisings, the statue of my great, great, great grandfather General Williams Carter Wickham – slave-owner (257 persons), Confederate general, statesman, and VP of the C&O Railroad – was unceremoniously toppled from its pedestal and left lying on the ground in Monroe Park. For Richmond, it was one more radical rejection of racist intransigence represented by public symbols that have stood for decades. For my white Wickham cousins and me it opened a new opportunity to probe our common ground and move into a deeper relationship. We used a Zoom session to express our thoughts and feelings with each other, and began to fashion a familial response. We’re all on it and we’re moving forward.

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As always, I am finding deep inspiration and reserve in music. In week 3 of the COVID-19 crisis I wrote the song “On Solid Ground” as a call to a deeper sense of community and to point out a “Sankofa” moment… looking back to look forward. More song writing and creative expressions have helped me to center myself and others as rallies and gatherings continue to increase.

(You can watch and listen to me sing “On Solid Ground” here: https://vimeo.com/409236657

I know that many of you are also concerned that this shift for positive change becomes a real window for impacting our nation and are searching for ways to make this a part of your personal mission. In that spirit, I continue to offer concerts like my Every-Other-Friday Concert Series, as well as other online concert and performance opportunities as we gather to support each other in this window of change and growth.

As they sang at the mass meetings for the Modern Civil Rights Movement, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round!” We are fast becoming the change we want to see in the world. And it’s gonna take us all working together to face down the forces of hate and a system that is dead set against making that change matter.

We got this!

In change, action, and song,

Reggie

Teachers Make A Difference

Greetings Good People!

In this time of challenge and change, with lots of time to think about a world that is now on the edge and wandering toward an uncertain future. I see, as others have stated, a great opportunity to think carefully and expansively about the choices that are before us and my place in this astounding time.

As we forge ahead, trying to find ways to engage each other in that changing paradigm, I can’t help but to be grateful for the fire and inspiration that the teachers in my past helped me to locate and ignite. Looking back, I can see very clearly how some of my teachers were able to spark the passion for questioning, learning and exploring that led me to use my curiosity and gifts to help me become the person I am now. It’s often the things that seem so small in the moment, that later, in hindsight, turn out to be monumental turning points that send your life in one direction or another, Such is certainly the case wth my journey to this present moment.

My thoughts range all the way back to 2nd grade at Grover Cleveland Elementary School where Miss Charlotte Churn, my 2nd great teacher, used Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land” to open up a world of folk music and a wider world of discovery. It spoke of redwood trees, poverty and dust storms, storied rivers, states and people who were thousands of miles from my inner city home in Philadelphia. That song shifted my point of view in ways that would not take true shape until I would have the chance later in life, to travel and see them for myself. But Miss Churn did her job as a teacher, expanding my mind by using a musical and cultural touchstone that validates arts education practices now in use. And it happened on a day that she would not even remember when we met, by chance, almost 3o years later.  She, like millions of others, was trying to help her students find that space beyond the realms that our eyes could see and our locally focused brains could imagine.

And in 8th grade, it happened again. My home room and history teacher, Mr Nicholas, asked my mother if he could make a recommendation for me to go to a school that was not in my neighborhood because, as he said “Reginald is a very eclectic boy.” (My mother would later mis-interpret his use of that word by remarking “He says that you talk too much!) He continued, “I think Reginald would do much better at the school that most of these other students will attend after finishing here.” My mom warily asked the coded question, “So it’s a better school?” (meaning “So white kids go there?) He said “Yes!” And that conversation and his subsequent efforts connected me to a school where wider perspectives and a more diverse education would be my ticket to creating dream options and accomplishments that my neighborhood school would likely not have afforded.

It was there that I would encounter a number of teachers, Ms Hausler, (home room in 9th grade) Mrs Baker (english in 8th grade) Mr Gerson (who saved me from the indignity of failing 12th grade physics) and the person who might be the single most important teacher in my finding a career in music, my choral director, Mr Theodore Nitsche.

The signature event happened in my 3rd week of 9th grade at Olney High School in Philly. I was sitting with hundreds of other students in the auditorium awaiting an address from the principal when the Olney High School accapella choir walked in, gathered in two groups, (front and rear) and sang ONE SONG. Just one! But in that crystal clear moment, I thought to myself, “I need to be in that choir!” The song was magical and it spoke to something in me that would not be denied.

Later that very day, I went up to the 5th floor to see Mr Theodore Nitsche, the music teacher who had been teaching there since the day the school opened in 1936. Mr Nitsche had taught every student at the school for at least one year in his music appreciation duties but the choir was his pride and joy. I began by informing him that he needed me in his choir. The news was not good. He told me that I had missed the choir auditions by one week and that the choir roster was set. In an unusually bold move for me, I informed him that he NEEDED me because I was a tenor and he didn’t have enough?  (I had somehow counted 9 tenors in a 100 voice choir.) He stared at me, and said “Really?”  After a brief conversation he took me in a rehearsal room and gave me a quick vocal test. In minutes, I became #10. That moment and my subsequent four years as part of the choir family changed my life in so many ways. That experience  extended both to my time as a student at that school and even more to my journey as a person, an educator and a musician to this day.

Mr Nitsche was an usual man. He was serious about music, personal and community responsibility and about getting the music right while being expressive and precise. He thought of all of us as “his rousters!” (a term already way out of use even by that time!) He was a Quaker, though I wouldn’t learn that until the memorial service at time of his death in 1979.) He was a firm believer in the worth of all individuals though he could be opinionated and sharp when talking about “evil doers” and bad behavior. But his talks always centered on compassion as he constantly lectured us about the need to be good role models in the world. For a kid who was dealing with many issues both at home and at school (facing situations where race, religion and class issues made me feel inferior) he proved on any number of occasions that he “saw” and appreciated me for who I was. And that even carried over to the times when I got on his LAST nerve. It was in his choir that I made the friends who would eventually connect me to future people and places that helped me to discover my voice in new ways, learn the guitar (in a much longer story) and become the musician I am today.

As a teacher, Mr Nitsche and those others made me feel smart,  safe, challenged and more confident as they lit a fire in me for striving, observing carefully, listening with purpose,  sharing my opinions and for singing Bach choral preludes and the counterpoint that exists in my head every time I harmonize. Teachers can make a world wider than the oceans are deep. And in my case, thanks to their efforts, I have been swimming with joy and abandon for years!

In the spirit of joy,

Reggie

Woke Up in the COVID Boat! (Still singing’!!)

Dear Music Family,

I hope you are all well and paying attention to keeping yourself safe in this ongoing COVID-19 crisis. My heart is very sad in this moment as cancellations, mis-information, and fears continue to mount. We all find ourselves in a state of uncertainty as we try to adjust to the need for individual, community, and global safety.

Two weeks ago, in my role as co-president of the Living Legacy Project, I led a conference call where our board decided to cancel two Civil Rights Pilgrimages that were scheduled for this month. At that time, we had two bus-loads of excited participants who were looking forward to exploring over 20 sites related to our extraordinary Civil Rights heritage. At that time, it felt like a hard and bold decision to make. Now, in hindsight, it was clearly the reasonable thing to do.

As you know, one of my great joys is leading music on these powerful journeys that connect people not only to the past, but to the critical issues that still plague our nation. Singing with people on the bus is always one of the highlights that sets the tone for the narratives that we must consider, past and present. These songs have stood the test of time, and still inspire activism and action to drive us forward.

Last month I had the chance to celebrate some of these very songs with one of my musical heroes, my brother Josh White, Jr. We sat together on stage in East Lansing and traded songs and stories, and watched our audience “come alive” with the passion and fervor of a mass meeting. There were moments when we could have been in one of those churches in Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, AL, or Jackson, Mississippi, waiting for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or C.T. Vivian to stand and deliver a stirring sermon aimed at firing us up to register to vote. And here in this election cycle, faced with some of the most important challenges our nation has ever faced, we need all the inspiration we can get.

Check out this video: https://vimeo.com/397802933

Like Josh, I come from a long line of committed song leaders who knew the power of song. When they sang “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind (stayed on Freedom)” they were committing themselves to personal action in hopes of changing the world.

Our cancelled journeys will be rescheduled, and as most of us feel trapped in our homes for periods of time, I encourage you to use this opportunity to read, watch, and learn so that when we again have the opportunity to gather, organize, and vote, we will be ready. Two favorite books include The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. You might also watch that movie, or watch the documentary “13th,” a very thought-provoking documentary on our system of justice. An additional reading list is available at https://deeperthantheskin.com/about/bibliography/

In peace, health, and song,
Reggie

Are You History Makers?

Dear Music Family,

I send my best wishes to you all as we make our way in 2020.

It’s so hard to believe that we are already three weeks into this new decade. I find myself caught between the energy of the new year and the need to take some time to review what I’m leaving behind. With a year as trauma-driven and stressful as 2019, it’s tempting just to “let it all go!!” Since I’ve long since given up on the exercise of making New Year’s resolutions from year to year, I now choose to focus on a few moments of discovery that I wanna remember and add some new goals in the effort to build forward with purpose. Fortunately, my first week provided the perfect backdrop to do that with joy.

Like last year, the invitation was to passionately open ourselves to considerations of what that pivotal movement has to offer as inspiration as we face this charged national racial and political climate. We looked back to look forward. (Sankofa!)

In Selma I stood next to Joanne Bland, who was a child on the Edmond Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday,” as she challenged our students. “Are you history makers?” she shouted. “Yes!!” they replied, in voices loud and strong! “Then you make sure you VOTE to honor those who died so that you can!”

I can say with assurance that none of us departed from our final stop in Memphis the same people as when we began. Of course, along the way, we sang together and let the music create a new sense of hope and community as it did with those amazing pioneers so long ago.

Now, in this moment, I invite you to join us on this new journey of discovery. As I said to the students in our closing circle: “Let the music you bring into your life in 2020 support and challenge you to be the best you can be, as we continue to work for justice, peace, and a more sane and thoughtful world.” The opportunity requires us to be family to each other in a different way. I believe we are up to it.

And those folks who sang “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round!” did too. They were reminding us to let our light shine!

In peace, justice, and song,
Reggie

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