Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon

A Powerful Journey through the Universe

 

Illustration of Bernice Johnson Reagon by Katherine Sandoz of Savannah

Illustration of Bernice Johnson Reagon by Katherine Sandoz of Savannah

It is the singular most powerful force in the universe. And when joined with others in unison it becomes a catalyst for change and the music of the soul that invites us to dance life’s dance.

Years ago, Bernice Johnson Reagon realized the power she possessed and throughout her journey she has used her voice to enlighten and ignite us—sometimes a whisper, sometimes a roar, but always guided by truth and righteousness.

As founder of the critically-acclaimed all-female a cappella collective Sweet Honey In The Rock, Reagon drew her inspiration from the very depths of her southern Georgia heritage, as well as from her own social and political consciousness. The result was a musical voyage that spanned over 30 years and continues to sail into a whole new era.

Those who have even a glimmer of knowledge about Reagon know that she has never been a mere bystander on the road of life. She’s always been an active participant, usually sitting in the driver’s seat, charting the course for others to follow. Composer, singer, historian, music producer, author, cultural activist, Bernice Johnson Reagon has left none of her talents untapped, none of her callings unanswered, as she has nurtured a career that stretches over four decades, starting with her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as a college student in her hometown of Albany, Georgia.

It was there in her rural Albany surroundings that she was exposed to a musical style that planted the seed for Sweet Honey’s sound—a sound that poured from the lips of an ensemble of black women into a steady stream of cd’s and performances over the years. Since its inception in 1973, Sweet Honey in the Rock has become not only a musical group of note, but an institution that has served as a source of healing, inspiration and consciousness for people of all cultures: the sweetness of honey, the strength of a rock—a group bound together by like minds and one voice.

While she is widely regarded for giving birth to Sweet Honey (from which she retired last year) as well as her outstanding work as a scholar, teacher and artist, Bernice Johnson Reagon and the details of her life’s journey could not be more eloquently revealed than here in her own words.

Let’s start at the beginning. Talk about how your interest in music and your consciousness developed. Has one generally inspired the other?

The connection between music and struggle, my activism: Have they always been blended? I would say no. I was born into a black community in southwest Georgia and, looking back, my sense is that music was a part of everything I experienced. From people humming at home to singing games to school devotionals and music solos in competitions to the fact that my father was a Baptist minister and music was as strong an element in church services as prayers and sermons. I did not as a child have a sense of music being an expression of activism. It just was a world I was born into.

My first experience with music and struggle came as a result of me beginning to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement and I think, like most people of my generation, I began to be pulled with the news of things like Emmett Till’s murder, the Supreme Court decision, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Little Rock, Arkansas integration. Autherine Lucy going to the University of Alabama was very strong for me and in all these things I just felt an energy within myself and within my family and within the schools, coming from the teachers. There was just something happening in terms of what black people were getting involved with and I absolutely remember going through that period where I definitely wanted to be a part of it.

I remember seeing footage of students [during the 1960 sit-in in Nashville] marching and singing. I was the secretary of the NAACP and we began to sing in our NAACP meetings and I began to lead songs that basically were songs I knew but I had heard them used in these marches on the news. I was already doing ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved,’ but I tended to not sing them the way the Nashville students sang them. I basically knew the song, heard the song and sang them in a southwest Georgia style and that was the beginning for me of music and struggle and it expanded from there.

When you say a southwest Georgia style, what does that mean? What was unique about that style?

I had no idea that it was unique. It wasn’t anything that I thought about. I grew up inside of a black community and I think I had some assumption that at least in terms of the south we shared a lot culturally. It was during the movement that I began to understand. We had concepts of northern black people. Some of our classmates in high school would spend the summer in the north and when they came back they sort of talked a little different. I had the sense that we shared things from the radio, that black people especially shared rhythm and blues and doo wop nationally and the dances seemed to ripple across the country and we never understood how that was happening but I thought there was really a difference in the way country black people sang. I was a part of a rural church culture. A rural church culture does not mean that the church necessarily is in the country. You can actually have a church in town and you walk into that church and the style of singing and worship in that church is very, very traditional but if you’re dealing with a Baptist church, we would have Baptist churches inside the city limits of Albany, Georgia and they would sing the same style as my church that was located in the county but there were also Baptist churches in Albany where the black people in those churches were a little more educated and they tended to sing more anthems, they tended to sing hymns in the tunes of the hymn books and the vocal production was a little more of a western aesthetic. But I did not have a real sense that there was something that was a southwest Georgia style as opposed to some other region. That began to be clear to me and it was much more like all black people are not culturally from the same place.

FreedomSingers1068x724

SNCC Freedom Singers (L-R) Bernice Johnson (Reagon), Charles Neblett, unidentified singer, Cordell Reagon and Rutha Mae Harris

At the first mass meeting that was held, after students had been arrested for trying to buy tickets at the Trailways Bus Station, we sang in the mass meeting. There were some SNCC organizers in Albany—and I married one: Cordell Reagon. The other two were Charles Sherrard and Charlie Jones. All three of those people were incredible singers. Cordell was from Tennessee, Charles was from Virginia, Charlie Jones was from North Carolina. We sang in NAACP meetings, we sang in the offices but when black people of Albany packed that church and began to sing out of the energy of the movement, I remember Cordell and Sherrard saying ‘Man what is this?’ They were basically saying that they had never heard that kind of singing before and one of the things we did was ‘We Shall Overcome.’ When we sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ we actually threw in additional slides and calls in the song, pushing the song higher and higher and it actually changed the way ‘We Shall Overcome’ was done from that point on.

We were basically singing the same song that the Nashville students were singing but we actually charged it with a sort of approach that we would have done any congregational song of that style in southwest Georgia. I noticed that they would comment about the singing but I think it was not until I began to study black music that I got a sense of regional congregational stlyles. For instance there’s southwest Georgia and there is a different repertoire of songs that I’ve never heard off the coast of Brunswick from the Sea Islands or off the coast of Charleston you’ll find another different style of repertoire and style of singing. Then mainland, on the boundaries of North Carolina and South Carolina I studied some prayer band music and their way of singing and harmonizing was different than what I’d grown up with in southwest Georgia so there are regional differences in some of the songs. We do share some things but if you raise a hymn in Albany, Georgia and you raise that same hymn in a church in Mississippi the tunes would be different. What I think southwest Georgia and that Albany movement created was a really enriched style, an unaccompanied way of singing the freedom song and it had to do with the way we sang church songs in southwest Georgia.

And that is the sound that laid the foundation for what we hear in Sweet Honey in the Rock.

In some of the repertoire. The approach to singing is definitely what I experienced growing up in churches in southwest Georgia and it was different than what I learned studying western choral music in high school and in college in southwest Georgia. The style of singing with Sweet Honey in the Rock actually went beyond the way we sang as freedom singers. I went to the older style in terms of the approach and what the singing was supposed to be about and especially the power of what you create when you sing together with other voices. There’s always supposed to be a sense that there is something that is created that is more than the sum of the people singing so we actually began to talk about Sweet Honey in the Rock as a force or an energy that was able to come into being when we got on stage and turned our voices over to that work. When we walked off stage she no longer existed. You just had five black women.

It was also a situation where when you began a song, you know the song but you don’t know that particular singing so you go to the stage expectant, wondering what would happen during that next period as you made your offering – just like when you went to church you went to get something you did not have or you had never gotten before and you were not trying to get something you got last week during another church service. In each service and, for Sweet Honey, in each concert that concert is a unique creation and all of those principles or all of that infrastructure I really learned going to church in southwest Georgia.

While many of us have been familiar with who some of the women were who have made up Sweet Honey in the Rock that has never been as significant as Sweet Honey in the Rock herself—the music, the message and the whole organic feeling that emanates when you hear the music.

We learned a lot of this from the audience. If you sing on stage you know to a large extent what you’re offering. You know what happens to you. You’re getting some response from the audience but it doesn’t add up to your real understanding of what the audience members are experiencing. And audiences began to tell us what they were experiencing and what Sweet Honey in the Rock was and it was quite a marvelous thing.

I founded the group and I led the group for 30 years and retired in February 2004, so Sweet Honey in the Rock has moved into a new phase of trying to find where that force is without my presence. We’ve had lots of experience moving on after someone leaves but I think this is probably one of the most challenging things for that work and I think it’s true any time a work of this sort or an institution tries to continue after a founder is not present. But in my mind Sweet Honey in the Rock’s foundation and approach to singing is very much what I learned in southwest Georgia and why we sing is very much about what happened to me in the Civil Rights Movement.

The way I found my most consistent contribution in the Civil Rights Movement was as a song leader and as a freedom singer and for the women who were drawn to Sweet Honey who came into the group they were attracted by the fact that this was a group of black women who were very serious about the work of being an artist and took themselves seriously and also that we saw ourselves as an articulate voice of struggle and commentary on all aspects of life experiences we had as black women, as citizens, as people in the universe. The women who came to this group were drawn to that concept of strong powerful singing, black women singing and the idea of struggle and celebration of life and respect. What’s very important is I’m the only one from southwest Georgia but no one ever came to Sweet Honey in the Rock without bringing something. So even though foundational principles are southwest Georgia it would not be correct to say that Sweet Honey in the Rock is a southwest Georgia group because that would be slightly inaccurate. But I am a carrier of southwest Georgia traditions. You can even hear southwest Georgia in my daughter’s music—Toshi Reagon.

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon

It is so strong and it is difficult for me to articulate how important, how conscious I am of what I got from the black people of southwest Georgia—my family, my school, the whole culture. I remember during Sweet Honey’s 30th year there was a film documenting that year because it was my last year. The filmmaker is Stanley Nelson and the film is going to be on American Masters in June. In addition to the concert footage and things like that they have little snapshots where they tried to do bios on some of the members and when they came to me they asked me for pictures of my family and I said, ‘For what?’ they said, ‘We want to introduce who you are’…They really wanted a picture of me when I was not who I am now and I’m beginning my seventh decade on the planet so I looked at this cut and I heard my voice singing ‘I’ve Been In the Storm So Long’ and I saw pictures of black people in southwest Georgia and they cut out this little picture of this little girl and stuck it in there and I said, ‘What’s she doing in there?’ And they said, ‘That’s a picture we found of you.’ I said ‘Take her out.’ I said, ‘Don’t you hear my voice?’ It was so clear and it was so strong and it was so much like a southwest Georgia strand and when they moved from picture to picture all of it being southwest Georgia I thought, ‘That’s who I am. If you need a close-up, just go close up on any of those people in that footage and you will have me.’

Was it difficult for you to leave after 30 years?

Sweet Honey or southwest Georgia? It was not difficult for me to leave Georgia because I’ve never left and when I go back to Georgia I can tell how much I’ve never left Georgia in terms of going back into those settings. When I got ready to leave Sweet Honey. I actually left Sweet Honey and I’m still in transition so I can’t talk a lot about it. You’d have to think of doing an interview in two years and I might be clearer. When Sweet Honey reached her 15th year, I had a feeling that this was a work that might go beyond the singers who made up Sweet Honey. I also was very clear that the load I carried was more than I needed to carry. I’ve been working now for 40 years but for 30 years I had held a full time job and Sweet Honey in the Rock, which was a full time job. Some people say ‘We’re so sorry you’re gone.’ I say, ‘I did 30 years full time at a job and I did 30 years Sweet Honey. That equals 60 (laughing). I can step aside.’

For the 15th year I began to talk with the group about shifting the leadership structure and we tried a lot of different things to try to spread out the responsibility to try to understand what I had put together to create the business—because there were some very unique things happening in the way we operated as an organization. Coming into the 29th year I actually had a sense that if I was going to continue I had to give up my other job so that the only job would be Sweet Honey and I had to not be doing any Sweet Honey business and I think I found out at some point in that year that if I was in the group that would never happen. Then I began to say, ‘If I leave the group, suppose the group stops’ or ‘If I leave the group am I responsible to be sure that the group continues’ and I actually had to have some sessions and the sessions helped me locate that my decision was whether or not it was time for me to stop the work. If Sweet Honey stopped it would not be my decision and if she continued it would not be my decision….So I decided I would leave.

The first time I heard inside myself that my little plan was not gonna work was in October. By early December I had made the decision and I held it for two or three weeks and told the group. So it was not a long developing time – the leaving but the time of searching for a way to think about continuing and sharing leadership stretched over 15 years…. But once I said I was leaving, it was like the universe sighed….I have gotten some inklings of things that might be coming to me but the biggest thing that has happened is a locating of the pace at which I am supposed to be moving through the world and it’s a slower pace with more rest, more attention to the body I have left which I’ve not taken care of and getting in touch with what shape I’m in has been sobering — a sort of calm about it and it has been a major gift. I know I could have died and actually not responded to this thing inside myself that says if you have health and life there is something else for you to do. But as I stand and I’m talking to you I don’t know what’s ahead but I do know if I have health and life I will actually be able to do other things.


 

When Bernice Johnson Reagon left Sweet Honey in the Rock she vowed not to hear the group sing for a year and would not allow anyone to use the Sweet Honey name when marketing her personal projects. “I believe in giving time, giving space and not always being in the face of the women who have decided to carry on this work,” she says. “And I don’t allow people to use the Sweet Honey name as a marketing ID for me because there is a Sweet Honey in the Rock and I’m not in it.”

Like a mother who is confident that she has instilled her child with the love, nurturing, and values, she needs to fly alone in life. Reagon has let go of the Sweet Honey reigns, passing them on to the women who have learned from her wisdom and creativity. And she has done so with no remorse, no regret but rather with a sense of excitement about what the future holds for her. “I’m stepping aside so I can continue and I know that my stepping aside increases the possibility that there might be a new chapter of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Right now I am in a space where I am sort of shifting. I’ve been such a grounded person in whatever work I’m doing. It’s a new space for me and it’s a wonder and I feel blessed to have the gift of it.”

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