Reagon, Bernice Johnson 1942–
Bernice Johnson Reagon 1942–
Vocalist, composer, and historian
Dedicated Herself to the Civil Rights Movement
It would be enough for one impressive life’s work had Bernice Johnson Reagon simply founded Sweet Honey in the Rock, a highly-regarded female a cappella ensemble dedicated to performing traditional music of the African diaspora. Dr. Reagon, however, has also acted as the group’s artistic director while pursuing her primary vocation as a cultural historian. As such, she has contributed to one of America’s most important museums, the Smithsonian Institution, since 1976. In all of her work, whether it is making music or editing books, her life has followed one path consistently, as Douglas Barasch indicated in the New York Times when he wrote: “Her work, her music and her life have been devoted to the preservation of black oral culture.”
An understanding of Reagon’s life is impossible without an understanding of the origin of her music—and that would not have existed as such without the black Baptist Church that characterized the rural South of her time. Reagon, the third child of a Baptist minister, was delivered into the black community outside of Albany, Georgia, on October 2, 1942. Her parents, Reverend Jessie Johnson and Beatrice Wise Johnson, immersed their children in the life of the church that served their community; music—gospel music in particular—was fundamental to that life. In the historical notes she provided for We Who Believe in Freedom, Reagon explained that Mt. Early Baptist Church “had no piano. Like most of the rural churches in the region, we did all of our singing unaccompanied except for our hands and our feet; to this day I am an a cappella singer.” She further credited the church environment with shaping her identity as a singer and even her voice: “The first time I… experienced allowing the energy and support from the congregation to come into my voice … it changed my voice,” she wrote.
Along with the church and the black community, Re-agon’s schooling became a fundamental force in her life. After completing her years at Blue Springs Elementary School, Reagon was among the first generation of black children in her region to be bused to the county junior and senior high schools. For most of the black children in her area, school had stopped after the elementary grades; Reagon explained in We Who Believe that “if you were a student who finished the seventh grade in our county, the only way you could get to junior and senior high school was if your parents drove you or if you could board in town.
At a Glance…
Born Bernice Johnson, October 2, 1942, in Albany, GA; daughter of Jessie (a minister and carpenter) and Beatrice (Wise) Johnson; married Cordell Reagon, 1963 (divorced, 1967); children: Toshi, Kwan. Education: Attended Albany State College, 1959-62; Spelman College, B.A., 1970; Howard University, Ph.D, 1975. Religion: Baptist.
Musician and cultural historian. Organizer and vocalist for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 1960-63; member of Freedom Singers, 1963-64; employed in a bookstore, 1964-68; released first solo album, 1964; founder and member of Harambee Singers, 1968-70, D.C. Black Repertory Theater, Washington, DC, vocal director, 1971-77; founder and vocalist, Sweet Honey in the Rock, 1973—. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, cultural historian and director of Program in Black American Culture, 1976-88, curator in Division of Community Life, 1988-93; curator emeritus, 1994—. Distinguished Professor of History, American University, Washington DC, 1993—. Creator, director, and narrator of NPR series Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions.
Selected awards: (With Sweet Honey) Grammy Award for best gospel album, 1985; Wammies for best gospel and best ethnic international group, 1987; Grammy for best traditional folk recording, 1988. Reagon received a Mac Arthur Foundation “genius” grant, 1989.
Addresses: Office —Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, 12th. and Constitution NW, Washington, DC 20560; c/o of Songtalk Publishing, 1315 Kennedy St. NW, Washington DC 20011.
Most students could not make it to school until we got that bus. Busing was a given for white students in the county; they did not want us to have it.” But the bus was there for Reagon, and she began high school in 1955 and soon became a soloist in the chorus. She also had her first glimpse of the two paths that would converge in her life for the next decade: college and the civil rights movement. She had joined the Youth Chapter of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by her senior year in high school, taking on the secretarial post for the group. Meanwhile, her musical talent led to an audition with John H. Chadwell, then head of the music department at Albany State College.
Supported by two fellowships, Reagon accepted an admissions offer from Albany State in 1959 and began studying music on the all-black campus; she quickly proved her academic merit, rising to the top of her class by the end of her first year. She discovered, however, that the music studies available in the academic setting were not entirely to her taste. She explained in We Who Believe: “I had real trouble feeling music in the theory and harmony classes, so I thought I could not be a real musician.” She found herself drawn instead to something with a more immediate value to her life: the civil rights movement. When the sit-in movement swept the South in 1960, Albany became one of its focal points. “All over the South, beginning with the February 1 Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins,” Reagon wrote in We Who Believe, “black students (sometimes joined by white students) sat in lunch counters, movies, restaurants, churches, and racially segregated establishments that served the public. There were supportive demonstrations all over the nation…. The country was in an uproar and black students were moving out of the classrooms and into the streets in growing numbers.”
Dedicated Herself to the Civil Rights Movement
Reagon was quickly drawn into the cause, lending her talents as organizer, as marcher, as song leader—whatever the situation demanded. When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to Albany in 1961, Reagon threw herself into the group’s work, split between anti-segregation demonstrations and voter registration drives. Ultimately, the school administration would not condone the participation in marches and demonstrations that her activism entailed. It was during one such march that Reagon and hundreds of other demonstrators were hauled into the local jails, where she remained for two weeks. Sharing a cell with 30 or 40 other women, Reagon discovered the importance of music as a political act that could defuse conflict and consolidate purpose; furthermore, as she recalled in We Who Believe, the situation prompted her own growth as a leader. “When things would rub between people of different persuasions, someone would say, ’Sing a song, Bernice,’ and I would. People were not necessarily changed, but singing collectively created more space to be together in a cell with no space.” She also remembered: “I was perceived as one of the leaders. To be perceived as such was unusual for me in a multi-age group, and in a group where there were already many leaders.”
When her movement activities prompted Albany State’s administration to expel her in 1962, Reagon found herself courted by the music department at Spelman College. She attended briefly on scholarship, but returned to the SNCC very soon. “Leaving school was wrenching,” she noted in We Who Believe. “I was on full scholarship at one of the best schools in the country and I needed not to be there. I needed to be in the Movement.” While she was still at Spelman in the fall of 1962, her future husband, Cordell Reagon, organized the SNCC Freedom Singers. She became a vital member of the group for a year, singing to combat bigotry and to bolster the spirit of those engaged in struggle all across the country. Aside from fund-raising for voter registration drives, the group used song to galvanize civil rights activists, as Audreen Buffalo summarized: “Appearing at hundreds of freedom rallies and mass meetings during the early 1960s, they were the movement’s singing newspaper—reporting and defining the actions and issues from the civil rightswar zones where they were frequently arrested.”
Cordell Reagon, who originally hailed from Nashville, Tennessee, became Bernice’s husband in 1963. Anticipating the birth of her first child, Toshi, Reagon left the Freedom Singers in 1964; their son, Kwan, was born a year later. She still pursued various projects during this time, singing occasionally and often lending her skills to conference and tour organization. Of these years, Reagon said in We Who Believe, “Mostly I spent my time being a mother.” She did manage, nonetheless, to release her first solo album, Songs of the South, in 1964. After Cordell left her in 1965, Reagon found herself in dire straits before a job in a black bookstore provided her with $75 per week. Nonetheless, as she noted in We Who Believe, she had little time to do anything other than earn a living for her family: “I was not consistently active in singing or in the Movement.”
Toward the end of the decade, however, things began to shift back in Reagon’s favor. Her growing musical reputation led to a second solo album, Sound of Thunder, in 1967. In 1980 Reagon described herself to Alexis De Veaux of Essence as, at that time, “one of the angriest singers you have ever seen. It was like I had to ram myself down the throats of the audience.” Finding herself, in De Veaux’s words, “moving toward separationist attitudes of Black Nationalism,” Reagon formed a politically compatible six-woman group called the Harambee Singers, with whom she worked until 1970. “This,” she wrote in We Who Believe, “was when I began to find my way as a songwriter and arranger.” During those two years she also returned to Spelman, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in history—finally finding an academic field that could sustain her passion for music and for the African American community.
Beginnings of Sweet Honey
Two new opportunities drew Reagon to Washington, D.C., in 1971: first, through some connections, she was offered a position as the vocal director at the D.C. Black Repertory Theater; second, she won admittance to the graduate program in history at Howard University. Her job at the Rep allowed her to continue expanding her creative possibilities, the most important of which, ultimately, would be Sweet Honey in the Rock. By 1973 four of the women in Reagon’s vocal workshop expressed interest in forming a small group and naturally turned to her as an organizer. After one false start, Sweet Honey was born in the fall. Reagon described the first rehearsal in We Who Believe: “We started singing and it was good. We sang another song and it was good. I kept calling songs and they were all there, every note! After a while, we stopped—we believed, we looked at each other and said ’This is it!’” “Sweet Honey in the Rock” was the first song she asked her new group to sing in rehearsal; immediately, she knew that this should be the group’s name. Reagon told Chicago Tribune contributor Lynn Van Matre: “After I decided on that name, I called my father … and asked him what it meant…. He said the song was based on a parable about a land so rich that when you cracked a rock, honey flowed from it. And over the years, I have come to believe that black women are like that land. The properties of honey and rock represent the complexities of sweetness and strength that we struggle to offer up in our lives.”
The group began performing right away with a concert at Howard University in November; that was followed by a larger, more “official” concert for the Rep in 1974. As the year progressed, their reputation grew, and mounting encouragement compelled them to consider their seriousness as a group. The decision was positive, but a frequent turnover in members—with the sole exception of Reagon—began as well. “An early lesson I had to learn about Sweet Honey was that the women who made up this group would leave,” Reagon commented in We Who Believe. “During this period, I was most unclear about how we would make it. I felt I was walking blind.” Soon enough, however, Reagon adjusted, and the personnel changes even became a source of strength, a “recipe for survival.” Years later, Van Matre would argue that Sweet Honey “has endured largely because its collective spirit transcends individual personalities.”
“’Joan Little’ was … the first song of Sweet Honey in the Rock that played on the radio—and it was on a news broadcast,” Reagon recalled in We Who Believe. The group, concerned with keeping alive a rich and diverse musical heritage from the African diaspora, troubled itself little with the demands of commercial popularity. Offers came from major record labels over the years, as Reagon told People in 1990, but none have enticed the group away from independence. In 1982 Phyl Garland wrote in Stereo Review: “Recordings by this tightly knit ensemble have not made the charts and are not likely to do so, but concerts in their home base [D.C.J, … in New York City, and in farther outposts are sold-out affairs that take on the feel of a celebration.” Author Alice Walker, who attended her first Sweet Honey concert in 1978, recalled in We Who Believe: “By the fifth song I knew why people travel hundreds of miles to attend a Sweet Honey concert. Why people get married to Sweet Honey’s songs. Why people give birth with Sweet Honey’s music blessing the delivery room. It is inoculation against poison, immunization against the disease of racist and sexist selfishness, envy, and greed.”
Even without any pursuit of commercial success, Sweet Honey quickly became successful enough to demand a great deal of time and energy from each of its members. By the mid-1970s they were playing in folk festivals across the country and heading to the West Coast for their first full-fledged tour. They also released their first album— called simply Sweet Honey in the Rock —in 1976. “By the end of July 1978 it was clear that if the group was to go on, we had to find another way,” explained Reagon in We Who Believe. “There simply was not enough work, not enough money, and what work and money there was demanded too much time away from home. Our being away from home for long stretches created such a strain that it almost resulted in the end of the group. The effort was abandoned. Sweet Honey in the Rock would be a professional group, but not full-time.”
The last twenty years have allowed Sweet Honey in the Rock—personnel changes aside—to produce albums and maintain a tour schedule that has taken them throughout the United States and all across the world, including tours in Africa and Asia. In a 1992 Emerge interview, Reagon estimated that they have performed some 80 concerts a year. Throughout the decades, reviewers have greeted albums and performances alike with admiration and excitement. In 1978, the year the group’s second album was released, Susan McHenry cautioned Ms. readers that “anyone expecting just to boogie or hear a few spirituals is in for a surprise. Their music pulls at you demanding some deeper response, a more conscious commitment than applause.” Reviewing 1982’s Good News, Phyl Garland declared: “Their marvelously robust spirit works a miracle of communication, the nectar of their harmonies sweetening the urgency of their message.” About a 1987 performance Ivy Young wrote in Essence that the women of Sweet Honey “hurl their voices into the stratosphere, filling it with lush, perfect harmony.” Two 1992 New York Times writers profiled the singers: Douglas Barasch noted that “the group’s concerts have been described by reviewers, fans and Sweet Honey itself as a ritual, a revival, a mass meeting and a call to political arms.” Two weeks later, Ann Powers recognized Sweet Honey as having “helped define the black American folk tradition.”
Rose as a Scholar
The demands of Sweet Honey in the Rock have coincided with Reagon’s success in her academic work as well; after completing her Ph.D in 1975 and leaving the Rep in 1977, she rose from director of the Smithsonian’s Program in Black American Culture to the post of curator at the National Museum of American History. Her academic career requires her to meet the demands of scholarly production—writing articles and editing books on a regular basis, as well as giving presentations and performances at professional conferences. Her particular specialty has also put her in demand with filmmakers, several of whom have used her skills as a performer and as a songwriter to bolster soundtracks for their work. She has organized an array of research projects over the years, many on the lives of African American composers and activists—often revealing a historical figure to be both, as she did with both Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.
In 1994 her “Wade in the Water” project—a series of National Public Radio broadcasts celebrating the African American sacred music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—was finally completed after a decade in the making. Part of the funding for the series came from Reagon’s 1989 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which she received for her years of work and dedication. Each year, the foundation grants money to exceptional scholars and activists; Reagon received $275,000. She told Hank Stuever of the Washington Post: “I finally felt for once that somebody had looked at my work as a whole and it had really been digested.”
This work all comes from the bond that she sees between history and music, which she described in Emerge: “When I look at the body of freedom songs, I feel we’re looking at the articulate message of thousands of people. I argue that if you’re studying the Civil Rights Movement or slave culture in 19th century American history, you cannot know about those areas if you do not go to the songs and the singing, because that is a record. It is a community voice, a history created by a group.” Speaking with Barasch, Reagon commented on her own role in that history, explaining, “I feel directly responsible for whether in the 21st century certain information about my people will be known to my people and whether they will have what they need to survive.” Whether or not anyone else would hold Dr. Reagon responsible for that sizable task, there is no doubt that she has contributed substantially to both survival and change in African American history.
The African Diaspora: World Family of Black Culture, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980.
(Contributor) Black Women and Liberation Movements, Howard University, 1981.
(Contributor) Home Girls, a Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, Kitchen Table Press, 1983.
(Contributor) Cultures in Contention, edited by Douglas Kahn and Diane Neumaier, The Real Comet Press, 1985.
Compositions One: The Original Compositions of Bernice Johnson Reagon, Songtalk Publishing, 1986.
Black American Culture and Scholarship, Contemporary Issues, Smithsonian Institution, 1986.
(Contributor) Women in Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Rosalyn Terbog-Penn, Sharon Harley, and Andrea Benton-Rushing, Howard University Press, 1987.
(Editor and contributor) We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock … Still on the Journey, Anchor Books, 1993.
(Editor and contributor) We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
(Contributor) Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965, edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods, Indiana University Press, 1993.
With Sweet Honey in the Rock
Sweet Honey in the Rock, Flying Fish Records, 1976.
B’lieve I’ll Run On, See What the End’s Gonna Be, Redwood Records, 1978.
Good News, Flying Fish Records, 1982.
We All … Everyone One of Us, Flying Fish Records, 1983
Feel Something Drawing Me On, Flying Fish Records, 1985.
The Other Side, Flying Fish Records, 1985.
Live at Carnegie Hall, Flying Fish Records, 1988.
Breaths, Flying Fish, 1989.
All for Freedom, Music for Little People, 1989.
In This Land, Earthbeat! Records, 1992.
Still on the Journey, Earthbeat! Records, 1993.
I Got Shoes, Music for Little People, 1994.
(With the Freedom Singers) We Shall Overcome, Mercury Records, 1963.
Songs of the South, Folkways, 1964.
Sound of Thunder, Kintel Records, 1967.
Give Your Hands to the Struggle, Paredón Records, 1975.
River of Life, Flying Fish Records, 1987.
Selected video productions and contributions
(Composer) Wilmington 10, U.S.A. 10,000, Positive Productions, 1978.
(Composer and performer) Fundi, Joanne Grant, 1981.
(Composer and performer) Seeing Red, Heartland Productions, 1983.
(Music producer, consultant, performer) Eyes on the Prize, Blackside Productions, 1987.
(Music consultant, composer, and music producer) Roots of Resistance, PBS and Roja Productions, 1990.
Reagon, Bernice Johnson and Sweet Honey in the Rock; We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock … Still on the Journey, Anchor Books, 1993.
Audio, February 1989, p. 127.
Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1986, section 5, p. 3..
Downbeat, July 1986, p. 15.
Emerge, June 1992, pp. 57-58.
Essence, June 1980, pp. 93, 142-50; May 1987, pp. 93-94, 158-161.
High Fidelity, April 1986, p. 82.
Ms., December 1978, pp. 37, 41; November 1984, pp. 86-94; March/April 1993, pp. 25-29.
New York Times, November 1, 1992, p. H27; November 12, 1992, p. C18.
People, May 28, 1990, p. 108.
Stereo Review, July 1982, p. 86.
Time, January 17, 1994.
Upscale, May 1993, p. 48; April 1994, p. 106.
Washington Post, October 11, 1978, p. B9; July 19, 1989, p. D1.
The Songs Are Free: Bernice Johnson Reagon with Bill Moyers (video interview), PBS, 1991.
—Ondine Le Blanc
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