An In-Depth Interview With Folk Musician, Educator and All Around Inspiring Person, REGGIE HARRIS!
In his own words, Reggie Harris has been a 40-year pioneer as one of the few African-Americans in the folk music community, as well as an educator who lectures around the country. As a Black male growing up in Philly during the 50s and 60s, he was pushed into integrating schools and neighborhoods; he’s been a bridge-builder in many communities and has utilized folk music and songwriting as a way of bringing people together. He’s currently a teaching artist at the Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts program, and a veteran singer-songwriter whose incredibly unique perspective and undeniable energy shine through in his music.
While writing his recent album On Solid Ground, he was featured on CNN’s Silence is Not An Option with Don Lemon and in The New York Times to discuss his familial connection as the descendant of slavery as a great-great-great-grandson of confederate General Williams Carter Wickham and Bibhanna Hewlett.
On Solid Ground is about all healing and inspiration in the face of injustice and dissension. From the driving, funky “Standing In Freedoms Name”—which tells the tale of Rev. C.T. Vivian’s iconic encounter with Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma, Alabama, in 1965—to album-closing tribute to his friend and mentor Pete Seeger, “High Over the Hudson,” Harris dances between genres without hesitation and rides the highs and lows of each song’s content with a confident wisdom that only comes from a lifetime of studying folk music. On Solid Ground continues to add to Harris’s legacy, as a statement on the times and a guide to overcoming them.
Connect With Reggie Harris Online Here: WEBSITE
Learn more about Reggie Harris in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time today!
You are so very welcome. It’s a pleasure.
So what has this past year been like for you and your music? How are/did you get through the pandemic? Are things opening up now where you are? How do you feel about that?
Wow! Those are some really potent questions. The last year has really been quite a whirlwind of uncertainty, fear, anger, joy, anxiety and lots of discovery. There has also been some degrees of pain, sorrow and lots of enlightenment thrown in. It’s been surreal. But it’s also been reaffirming that I’ve found that much of what I work and live for has come to pass. When things came to a crashing halt in March 2020, I, like so many people around the nation and the world, found myself alarmed, frustrated and worried. We were facing such a deadly unknown and such vibrant unrest.
My school show in Buffalo was cancelled mid-day so I drove home and began to watch as 3 months of watching scheduled appearances (then more and more) disappeared under a cloud of confusion and uncertainty. Then all of the other issues, the personal, the political and the global rose up and filled the media and the lack of leadership that left a vacuum of hope was devastating. But as one who was raised in the Black community during the Civil Rights Movement, where the phrase “trouble don’t last always” was supported by songs like “Wade in the Water,” “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round,” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” I knew pretty quickly that this was no time to sit around moping. As my friend and mentor Pete Seeger once said, “When things seem to be at their worst, that’s the best time to be singing.” So it wasn’t long before I got busy. I got myself online and started doing concerts and song circles with friends and fans and before I knew it, we were seeing a whole new sense of possibility take over. And then I began to write songs to address the issues that were playing out in front of me. So I guess you could say I got through the pandemic by looking back and then getting busy. It was a Sankofa moment. It was a time loss both in normality and in lives. And even now there’s still so much division and stress. But we are beginning to open up and I’m still doing virtual gigs but now I’ve got some live, in-person shows coming up. It’s a little weird, a little scary but also exciting. There’s still lots of uncertainty all around. But I have all this new music to share. So I guess we’ll just thoughtfully and cautiously go forward and continue to build these new connections and see what happens. Personally I am grateful for what I’ve learned and to still be here. So many millions aren’t!
Let’s talk about your most recent album, On Solid Ground. What was it like putting this collection together? What inspired you to make it?
Putting together this CD was like being on a musical pilgrimage. Every song I wrote or arranged led me into a space where other songs could come. The title song was a gift that came right at the start of the pandemic in March. Surrounded by all the confusion in the worId, I did what artists do…I processed the observations and then began to comment through song. It concerned me greatly what wasn’t being addressed. I heard the conversations all around and of course, I was feeling those same or other emotions myself. But as the lessons learned from growing up and living in the African-American community…singing the songs of struggle and perseverance, I’ve been trained in ways to respond that go beyond the fear and defensiveness that first hit you. I’d learned those reactions from an early age by watching and then mirroring people in my church and my community. So that first song I wrote was an anthem of reassurance to the world. “We will keep each other strong; we will love and carry on!” It was my “Keep You Eyes on the Prize.” I wanted to say “We can do this if we pull together. I believe so firmly in the power of community because I’ve seen it at work. I think that we as a nation have become so fixated on “having our own personal rights” that we forget how much easier and effective our actions can be when we depend on each other.
What did it feel like releasing it?
As a songwriter and educator who tries always to write with honesty but into a sense of hope, releasing this music at this time felt very fulfilling. As an artist, you always hope that what you release has relevance in the moment and staying power. Watching the response has proven that out. I was more than a little worried that without concerts and touring, the CD would not get to the ears of enough people to matter. But my radio promoter Kari Estrin and my publicist Sarah Bennett have done an incredible job. And the folks who pledged to help me make the CD have spread the word. And then the DJ’s and reviewers responded so positively. The songs that make up On Solid Ground came out of my personal mission to speak to the world with a voice that shared what I have found to be true and to do so with honesty and compassion. The sights, sounds, stories, and conversations that were resonating at the moment made for great material but that was all seasoned by years of thinking about who and what we can be. There was certainly no lack of stories swirling around to provide inspiration. In addition to the pandemic, there were the longstanding issues of racial division, isolation, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others. In the midst of clashes between protesters and the police around the nation there was also loneliness, loved ones separated from each other, the plight of our senior citizens and factory workers…so many stories ripe for telling. I feel great about the whole collection.
Why did you decide to record this album with the musicians and production team that you worked with on your 2018 album, Ready To Go?
Once I had 7 songs, I knew that making a CD was not an option…it was a mission. So I called my friend Greg Greenway and our engineer Dave Schonauer who have both spent weeks with me over the last four years, creating music in vibrant, powerful and intimate statements. We trust and love working together and I knew that in this cauldron of uncertainty, that would be a great benefit. They were on board right away. Then I called on the musicians from Ready to Go and a few friends who have helped on past CD projects that I knew would resonate with these songs. As is often said, they all brought their “A” game and they also were dying to make some music.
Can you pick out a few of your favorite songs on this collection and explain how they were written and got to be on this album?
The songs came in a variety of ways. I wrote “High Over the Hudson” as a tribute to Pete Seeger just after he died in 2014, but it never made it onto a CD. All of the other songs were written or arranged between March and August 2020. “It’s Who We Are” was inspired by questions that come up in America again and again. We know our real history as a nation but it is seldom taught as it really happened. It’s one we’ve been dealing with at every level of education and in historical circles throughout the public forum forever. It goes to the issue of American exceptionalism and historic denial about the real story. The U.S. began as a brilliant idea of freedom and opportunity. But from the start, we had genocide against Native Americans, slavery against Africans, rights denied and all sorts of other wrongs as a backdrop. So when bad things happen, people say “How did that happen in America?” In 2020, the awareness that these issues have been swept under the rug for too long came out in so many ways as we began to realize nationally that we are still reluctant to look at them. With gun violence rising, police shootings of unarmed people, poverty, hate groups marching in the streets, the lack of healthcare and other frustrations, the pandemic made more people wake up. Then George Floyd was murdered and protestors again hit the streets crying out against injustice and against Confederate statues and symbols and other acts of discrimination. I wrote 27 verses of a song framed in anger and frustration but the song stalled because I couldn’t find a way to represent the hope that is also part of who we are in America. But when I saw people of different races, ages, colors, and backgrounds in the streets all across America calling out for us to be better (just as people had during slavery and with women’s rights and the Modern Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War) I said “People are waking up!” With that as a backdrop, I found what I needed and wrote “But we can change!”….and the song took off. It became the first song on the CD.
“Standing in Freedom’s Name” was inspired by Reverend C.T. Vivian who I met in 2015. One thing he said quite often was, “In the Civil Rights Movement, we knew that we were working for something bigger than ourselves and we knew that we were working in the name of love!” That sentiment not only inspired that song, but led to my covering “All You Need Is Love,” by The Beatles. People living in isolation because of the virus led to including an arrangement of John Prine’s “Hello in There.” And “Come What May” was inspired by missing my girlfriend who lives in another state, as so many people were forced to do with loved ones.
How did you go about choosing what songs you wanted to cover? Was that a hard decision to make?
In truth, one song just seemed to lead to another. For example, I was part of an online song circle put together by my friend Aileen Vance to honor the songwriter Malvina Reynolds. At the time, protests filled the streets and many American leaders complained about the value and purpose of protest. Our country started as a protest and most of the ones that were happening were peaceful. So I decided to cover Reynolds’ “It Isn’t Nice” to remind people that it IS our right and actually it’s our JOB to resist when we feel unheard or disrespected. The song “Sing Out/March On” was one that my girlfriend found and suggested I learn. I chose it because it was written to honor Rep. John Lewis, who died in 2020 as I was writing these other songs. His long standing witness for freedom and justice has been an inspiration to me and to millions around the world.
I am curious to know what it has been like being a teaching artist at the Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through The Arts program? How did you first get involved with it?
Being a teaching artist at the Kennedy Center has been one of the greatest highlights of my life. In the 1990’s I was performing at the Kennedy Center and was approached by a member of the education department to do a teacher workshop. Little did I know that I had been targeted as one of the founding artists in a program that now has hundreds of artists and education centers around the nation. It’s a network that has revolutionized arts integration in school curriculum. Much of what I’ve learned about connecting students with learning and working with educators in evolving arts and education efforts has come from that great interaction.
What did it mean to you winning the Folk Alliance International’s 2021 Spirit of Folk Award?
There’s probably nothing more gratifying than to be recognized by one’s peers. To have those who understand what your effort and commitment required of you and who also feel that you have added value to the mission of the community and give you your props? That’s so fulfilling. The award came as a total surprise and also put me in such marvelous company with so many of the people that I respect and revere. I am honored to be considered worthy to be in that group.
Can you recall the moment when you thought you could be a musician? What do you think motivates you day in and day out to continue singing?
In truth, I’ve been a musician, in a way, all my life. My mother told me that I started singing when I was three years old, and I cannot remember a time when music was not a vibrant force in my life. I sang in choirs and solo throughout my school years. After high school I still took voice lessons and almost joined a Black opera company in Philly. That wasn’t music I was passionate about. Then, at age 19, I was introduced to the guitar by a girlfriend who was taking lessons and it was a magical fit. I couldn’t put it down. In 1974, I met my wife and eventually singing partner and we went to concerts and started dreaming of being on big stages. I soon struck out around the area to find places to play and eventually we were playing 6 nights a week. We even played as regulars at a comedy club in Philly for two years as the musical relief between performers like Jay Leno and Michael Keaton and other rising stars.
So becoming a professional musician was a gradual evolution that came from seeing performers like James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, and Ritchie Havens stand on stage and stir the emotions of a crowd. But I will admit that at first, I wanted to be a musician to gain fame and fortune. After we hit the road on the college circuit, there was no looking back.
I’m glad to say that my motivation shifted over the years as I saw people like Pete Seeger and Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock…and others who used music to inform while they entertained. I saw how music helps build communities and how it changes lives in ways that just about nothing else does. I realized that my being a musician had to have much more than just personal satisfaction. And now I’m driven by the power that song has to make us more human and how it inspires action as reflected in movements for justice and social change. And at the end of the day, singing and making music is also just plain fun!
What has been the biggest surprise so far about making music in your career?
I believe that one of the biggest surprises of my music career has been in discovering how deeply my life experiences can affect my vision for and my ability to make music that connects in theme and emotional connection. That is something that can be harder to understand as a younger artist. In sports, professional athletes often talk about the game “slowing down… becoming easier to play” how over time you see ways to focus yourself and be more present in the moment. Less self-absorbed and more able to express yourself on a deeper level. I know that my years of traveling the world and interacting with people of diverse backgrounds and artists of extraordinary talent have tempered me. Surviving a life challenging liver illness that required a transplant provided wisdom and depth I can’t even explain. The joys and losses of life have made me a better and more emotionally connected human being and a more nuanced, expressive and generous artist. Much of that comes through on this recording.
What has been an unexpected or welcome challenge to it all?
When I started out, I didn’t think that race would play as much of a role as it has. It has been a constant and enduring obstacle that defined access in the medium and that affected my approach at many points in my career. At first I saw it all in the negative. But the great benefit to that challenge is that it forced me to realize that music is the perfect vehicle to engage the world on just about any subject. My decision to accept my role as a bridge-builder and as a leader in anti-racism and anti-oppression work was a direct result of those experiences. The work I do in schools and colleges, with the Living Legacy Project and in Local 1000 (a traveling musicians union), was all made possible because of the obstacles I had to face, endure, and engage, and how it helped me to grow. Now in my solo work and in shows with Greg Greenway (Deeper Than the Skin) and Alastair Moock (Race and Song) I find great delight in taking on hard subjects with a joyful attitude. That all came about from facing the challenges of using music to do diversity work.
What do you think of the power of social media? How active are you on it all? Do you enjoy or have trouble keeping up with it all?
Social media is the classic “blessing and curse.” It allows us to connect in ways that are greatly beneficial to art and to spreading knowledge throughout the world. We have never as a world been more able to be in touch. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin…I’m kinda on Instagram…but it’s all too much. Who has that kind of time? It has certainly made the folk and other music communities more vibrant and connected. It’s also given access to a wider range of artists who can now get their work out there without passing through the gatekeepers who would otherwise silence their voices. But it can also work to isolate our experience of music, lessen our willingness to sing and collaborate in community and the worst thing is that it sucks up time where our brains might go quiet and create downtime for using our imaginations. Part of what happened for me in the pandemic was that I got off social media for hours of the day and I was open to noodling on my guitar or just sitting quietly…thinking thoughts that led to some exploration. Or maybe it just leads to being more rested? Social media is a great tool but it is very hard to balance. It’s so addictive. I participate because I have to and I’m grateful for its presence. But I and others have great fears for what it’s actually doing to our world and to our humanity.
At the end of the day, what do you hope people take away from your music?
Hope! My mission in life is to live consciously and to try to connect people with others in ways that spread hope and joy. I try to use my voice and songs in the fight against injustice because I solidly believe in the power of song. I see great evidence that music has the great ability to heal the world and to create opportunities for self-reflection and change. Music heals the heart and mind and can inspire action and accountability. It was used during The Underground Railroad, in the Civil Rights Movement and other movements in history and is a great vehicle for making the world more sane. I believe that if we are to survive our present decade of division and hate, music will be a large part of what gets us through.