Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Conveying History Through Song

As I have mentioned on this blog before, our family really loves the study of history. And for me, the study of history is about people, where they lived, how they lived, how they worked, what they wore, what they sang. . . you get the picture. All cultures throughout history have developed their own special music, folk art, and dance. When we study history, we should find out all we can about the way people lived at that time.

Today I found an article which really touched me. I just saw the movie The Great Debaters - which I loved, by the way, and I have been thinking about all that the black minority has been through. I will never fully understand, of course, but I do care.

Reading this article, especially the following paragraphs, really spoke to me about how strong the human spirit is - that will to live, to go on, not to be crushed. It reminded me of James' speech at the end of The Great Debaters and how even though he had witnessed something horrible, frightening, and sickening, he was not going to give up. He was not going to hide or live in fear.

"I was working with filmmakers on the Africans in America team who wanted slave songs, and they kept saying some of the songs I sent were too upbeat, too jolly. I told them that African-Americans would never have made it through slavery if they'd done only the mournful stuff.

"Think about black people coming to freedom with hope and wanting to know about their children, wife, husband, mother. Four million people who somehow have survived but are stunned because they had to absorb losing so much, who are going on in spite of losing so much, and finding a way to shout despite losing so much. With us laughter and tears are very close together; dancing and moaning are very close together." She pounded on her thigh, a fast, syncopated rhythm. "Dance! Drumming! It's a sanity thing. Even in a catastrophe, there had to be some time when you would smile and you would laugh. Or you wouldn't survive." She sang for me: "This is a mean world to live in till you die, without brother, sister, mother, father..." Despite the words it was a lilting song, full of joy. "I get audiences to sing along," she informed me. "I tell them even if you lose everybody there is still something in you that says, 'Since I am alive, I will go on.' How do you express that? Here you have it wrapped up in a jumping song. If you told the truth only in the pain and tears, you couldn't stand it for long. You have to have the moans and sadness, but also the shouting and celebration."

The entire article is really worth your time to read.

Conveying History Through Song
Bernice Johnson Reagon adds cultural nuance and period flavor to rousing a cappella renditions
By Michael Kernan,, February 01, 1999

In late 1961 the civil rights movement burst upon the scene in Albany, Georgia, as that town's African-American population galvanized to stand against segregation. A mass meeting at the Mount Zion Baptist Church was packed with people, from student activists to comfortable, middle-aged conservatives.

Cordell Reagon, an 18-year-old organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had discovered many talented singers in the SNCC workshops held in that community, among them Bernice Johnson and Rutha Harris, preachers' daughters studying voice at Albany State College. Reagon, Johnson and Harris were part of a small group of vocalists who led the singing in mass rallies, and that night, along with 500 others, they exploded in song.

Working without piano or any other accompaniment, the singers took the roof off the church. Everyone sang, everyone cried, the whole group swayed to the closing song, "We Shall Overcome," and people stayed on after midnight, wanting never to leave. It was one of the great moments in the American struggle for racial justice.

Her work in the movement was also a defining period in the career of Bernice Johnson Reagon, who eventually abandoned her plans for a career in classical music to work with a group called the Freedom Singers, founded by Cordell Reagon, whom she later married. She simultaneously pursued a solo career, making her first solo recording at age 19.

Bernice Reagon went on to found important musical groups herself, including the Harambee Singers in 1966 and the world-famous women's a cappella group Sweet Honey In The Rock in 1973. Along the way she picked up a doctorate in American history, a distinguished professorship at American University in Washington, D.C., the title of curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History, and a MacArthur 'genius' grant.

You can find the rest of the article here.

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