Get on Board: Underground Railroad and Civil War Songs, Vol. 2
by Kim & Reggie Harris
Trace the African American path to equality with guests Bernice
Johnson Reagon, Danny Glover,
Guy Davis, Matt and Marshall
Fink & Marxer, Peter Yarrow,
Baby Jay and others on the Harrises'
follow-up to their heralded 1997 Steal Away CD!
Music is a fuel for every social revolution, never more so than in the African American struggles out of slavery and into a semblance of equality in our modern culture. In pre-Civil War years, traditional Black gospel spirituals sometimes served dual purposes - to assert hope for a better life and to convey coded directions and advice to runaway slaves heading north on the Underground Railroad, a network of sympathizers providing food, shelter and aid. More than a century later, many of these same songs became anthems of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, their messages of faith and determination stoking countless freedom marches and rallies.
A 1982 request to perform at several Philadelphia school assemblies first led the married folksinging duo of Kim and Reggie Harris to explore the rich lore of Underground Railroad stories and songs and their subsequent reuse in more modern contexts. For the last 25 years, about half of the Harrises' 200 yearly performances across the country have been historically-oriented workshops for students, educators and parents. The Harrises' first album, Music and the Underground Railroad (1984, out of print), grew from their Underground Railroad studies, as did their 1997 Appleseed debut, Steal Away: Songs of the Underground Railroad, which was proclaimed as "a stunning recording" by Sing Out! magazine and has been embraced as a valuable teaching tool by Underground Railroad and Black history museums, freedom centers, and school systems, particularly during Black History Month (February) and in the days surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in mid-January.
On their new Get On Board! CD, Kim (vocals) and Reggie (vocals, guitar) present some of the lesser-known Underground Railroad songs they've uncovered since Steal Away was recorded, such as "Done with Driver's Dribbin'" and "Row de Boat," as well as reviving several standards from their past recordings ("Trampin'," "Get On Board"). "We're excited about keeping these songs alive," says Kim. "When the time comes for political action, the younger generations will take these same songs and once again mobilize and remake the tradition to apply to their own causes for freedom and social action."
The Harrises' musical guests on Get On Board! span ages and genres. "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep," a traditional song recently revived on Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions CD, features a near-acappella arrangement and vocal by Bernice Johnson Reagon, the renowned musician, teacher, activist and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Actor Danny Glover supplies readings from the pen of Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass over the Rev. Robert B. Jones' rendition of the gospel-blues "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning." Contemporary folk-blues performer Guy Davis, son of African American actor-activists Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee, adds slide guitar, harmonica and a vocal to the medley of "Rise Up Children and Follow/Go Tell It on the Mountain." Matt and Marshall Jones, two members of the SNCC Freedom Singers group of the '60s (which had previously included Bernice Johnson Reagon), are primary vocalists on "Old Tar River," a traditional song used to signal a pending escape to freedom. Fourteen-year-old Texas-based rapper Jonathan "Baby Jay" Gutierrez, representing a younger generation, trades rap verses with Reggie on "Row de Boat," a synthesis of slave song "Joann and Rhody" and the familiar "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." Additional voices and instrumentation are provided elsewhere by acclaimed folk duo Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, the CD's co-producers; longtime Harris associates Magpie (Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino); slide guitarist/solo artist Pat Wictor, and others.
Mixed in with the traditional material on Get On Board! are newer compositions "Ballad of the Underground Railroad," co-written by Black history scholar and Harris friend and mentor Charles L. Blockson, Cathy Fink's spirited "One Little Step Towards Freedom," and Roberta Slavitt's aching "Freedom is a Constant Struggle." There's also a newly recorded Civil Rights-era update of a traditional song, "If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus," available for free download from the Harrises' website, www.kimandreggie.com. The track features musician-activist Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), daughter Bethany Yarrow and her performance partner Rufus Cappadocia, as well as the Harrises. The website will present an interview with guest musicians and an activity plan related to the song for parents and teachers to utilize. Lesson plans for other Get On Board! songs will subsequently be posted.
With so many of the CD's guests having strong idealistic and historical connections to Get On Board's! timeless theme of music as a tool of freedom, it's no wonder the results are so uplifting. Prominent among the CD's glories is the use of voices - Kim's radiant mezzo-soprano and Reggie's high baritone are displayed in innumerable harmonic combinations, swooping around each other, slipping in and out of unison, joyfully welcoming the additional vocal textures of their guests.
The vibrant arrangements and the fascinating historical background of the songs, described in the CD's informative liner notes, make Get On Board! an accessible and uplifting documentary of music's role in our country's past, present and future.
Kim and Reggie Harris will never be confused with the legions of navel-gazing singer-songwriters who fall into the category of "contemporary folk music." The Harrises have been "walking the talk" for over 30 years, performing modern and historically oriented songs exploring societal ills and proffering positive social messages on stages from Italy to Alaska to the Virgin Islands, in classrooms and auditoriums across America, and on 11 albums (the six most recent on Appleseed) and various compilations.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa., both Kim and Reggie were exposed to a wide rang of music through their childhoods. After meeting at summer camp in 1974, the duo continued their friendship that fall at Temple University. As their personal relationship deepened, they began combining their voices and Reggie's acoustic guitar playing in performances at local Philadelphia clubs and coffeehouses. Married in 1976, the duo began a touring schedule that still averages more than 200 yearly appearances.
Writing songs separately, together, and with other musicians, the Harrises' compositions have addressed politics, domestic violence, families, the rewards and pitfalls of love, and a constant underlying theme of social activism. Their tribute to automobile seatbelts, "Passive Restraint," has been featured on National Public Radio's syndicated "Car Talk" program (and can be found on their Rock of Ages CD on Appleseed). With an additional repertoire of spirituals and freedom songs drawn from their cultural background and ongoing studies, Kim and Reggie's music carries on the folk tradition of preserving important songs from the past and incorporating meaningful new songs.
The Harrises have long held a special affinity for the songs of the late Phil Ochs, the Sixties singer-songwriter who exemplified the social conscience of the era's musical protest movement. Kim and Reggie are mainstays of a group of musicians who have toured the country for the past 16 years keeping Ochs' music alive in a series of Phil Ochs Song Nights. Ochs' "What's That I Hear" was recorded by the Harrises on last year's Let My People Go! A Jewish & African American Celebration of Freedom, a joint CD with Rabbi Jonathan Kligler that compared the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the 13th Century B.C.E. with the African American struggle for equality in the mid-Sixties.
Kim and Reg have composed and arranged music for television, radio, video and multi-media presentations. As part of their ongoing work in education, they are presenters for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts touring workshop program, providing teacher training that encourages the use of arts in the classroom. Among other high-profile appearances, Kim and Reggie have performed at the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, at the Kennedy Center, Smithsonian Institute, the Philadelphia and Falcon Ridge Folk Festivals, and the International Children's Festival.
Most recently, Kim has earned her Master of Divinity degree at New York's Union Theological Seminary, where she now lectures, and is working as an adjunct professor at the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY, and as an artist in resident for the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, NJ. She has also become involved in Operation Respect, a non-profit organization founded by Peter Yarrow that works to assure children a safe, compassionate climate of learning where their academic, social and emotional development can take place free of bullying, ridicule and violence. While working with Operation Respect, Kim enlisted Yarrow and young rapper Baby Jay in the Get On Board! project. Meanwhile, Reggie continues his volunteer work as a basketball coach and youth mentor in the Harrises' upstate New York community.
- Text and artwork provided by Alan Edwards of Appleseed Recordings.
1. Done Wit' Driver's Dribbin'
2. Get On Board
3. Oh Mary, Don't You Weep
4. Keep Your Lamps Trimmed & Burning
5. Run Mary Run
6. Children Go Where I Send Thee
7. Old Tar River
8. Ballad of the Underground Railroad
9. Trampin' / I Got Shoes
10. Rise Up Shepherd and Follow / Go Tell It on the Mountain
11. One Little Step Towards Freedom
12. Down by the Riverside
13. Row de Boat
14. Freedom is a Constant Struggle
Label: Appleseed Recordings
Date: January 30, 2007
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