With each harmony, group draws from the past

February 26, 2003|By Jim Abbott | Jim Abbott,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bernice Johnson Reagon can't remember a time when there wasn't music in her life.

"I don't know who I am outside of music," says Reagon, a historian with a doctoral degree from Howard University and founder of the acclaimed a cappella gospel choir Sweet Honey in the Rock.

"I was born into a family in southwest Georgia where we used music in games; we sang grace at the table; we listened to it on the radio; we sang in school; we sang in church," Reagon says.

"I could hear my mother singing all over the house. So when you think about eating, sleeping, doing chores, going to school -- right in there with all that is music in the air. It was the basic ingredient of who you were and how you defined who you were."

For three decades, Reagon's musical touchstone has been Sweet Honey in the Rock, an ensemble that combines her appreciation of history and inescapable attraction to song. The group, which performs tomorrow at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, celebrated its 30th anniversary in January with the release of The Women Gather, an album that frames topical exhortations about voting, war and civil rights against an exhilarating wall of voices and simple percussion instruments.

Frequently, the songs are historically based, such as "The Ballad of Harry T. Moore," adapted from a Langston Hughes poem about a civil rights martyr killed in 1951 when a bomb exploded in his home.

"It links a contemporary energy with a story dated in 1951, and it's a very powerful experience to be sharing it," says Reagon about the song.

The new album is a family affair. Reagon's daughter, postmodern R&B singer Toshi Reagon, co-produced with her mother and wrote three songs.

"I have always been able to hear the presence of Sweet Honey in her music, even though her band is really a rock band," the elder Reagon says. "There's something about the way she, as a younger musician, embraced all that we were trying to do that has been so affirming to me as a musician of another generation -- and also as a parent."

The historical focus of Sweet Honey, named after a biblical reference in Psalms, has inspired the group to record tributes to a diverse list of figures ranging from Woody Guthrie to Harry T. Moore.

It was Reagon's experiences with 1960s civil rights marches that planted the seed for the group, which she formed in 1973 as vocal director of the D.C. Black Repertory Co. in Washington.

Dressed in colorful robes that reflect African influences, the six-member ensemble blends traditional spirituals, jazz-inflected harmonies and tribal rhythmic touches. Lyrically, themes range from historical tales to current events.

"It was the civil rights movement that launched me toward what I do now," she says. "Singing in jails and at rallies and marches not only kept me going, it also helped the whole community to bond as a group.

"I decided that Sweet Honey in the Rock would be a group that celebrated our history, so we would do old songs but we would also write new songs about what we were experiencing. Our concerts would be places where people could come to find elements of what they were going through."

The biggest thing that Reagon, 60, learned from the civil rights movement is that courage starts with tiny steps.

"You had to say, `Am I going to the march today?' not `Are we going?' `Can I get up and go?' "

Finding such simple revelations from the past is a satisfying accomplishment, she says.

"There are many lessons from the past, and I do feel that history is so important," she says. "Not the kind that you memorize, but when there's something in a story that you use to think in a different way about something you're doing in your life.

"Sometimes you need to know how you got where you are and that's history for me. That's the practice of applying it."

Jim Abbott writes for The Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Sweet Honey in the Rock

What: A cappella gospel music

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Admission: $22-$44

Call: 410-783-8000

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