The Songs Are Free

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Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and curator of the Community Life Division of the Smithsonian Institution, discusses how black music has shaped the African-American experience and identity.

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In this excerpt, Reagon explains how music was used throughout black history to empower and show solidarity, and how one particular song — “This Little Light of Mine” — helped do that during the civil rights movement.


TRANSCRIPT

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: [singing] I ain’t gonna study war no more-We need harmony in this chord! [singing] I ain’t gonna study war no more —

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Bernice Johnson Reagon has been singing songs about resistance and love for as long as she can remember. She founded the popular vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock in the early ’70s. Performing all over the world, they’ve won an international following for breath-taking renditions of blues, gospel, jazz and contemporary sounds, all rooted in the African-American tradition. That tradition is Bernice Reagon’s calling. She is not only a musician but a scholar. With a Ph.D. in history, she has made the music and cultural story of blacks in American her life’s work. She is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where her mission is to bring the past to life. If you think that history is for dead people, listen up. This is Bernice Johnson Reagon and I’m Bill Moyers.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: When we sing, we announce our existence. [singing]

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Bernice Johnson Reagon takes her message and her music all over the country to colleges and community workshops like this one in Norfolk, Virginia.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Now, some of you have made a decision that you’re not going to make the total commitment because you don’t have time to get stirred up here. After all, this is the Virginian Beach New Library and you know that if you start to run sound through your body, it won’t feel the way that you had decided it was going to go through the day and you’ll have to be pulling yourself together. But what I am talking about is that you get together and you sing to do this to your body. That’s what black singing is. Songs are a way to get to singing. The singing is what you’re aiming for and the singing is running this sound through your body. You cannot sing a song and not change your condition. Already I’m a little flustered up here. My temperature-I’m a little flushed and I open my mouth and I do one of these songs and my whole something is different. And I can just feel it. Now, you have to do this if you’re going to do congregational singing. There are some people who come to church and they try their best to leave the way they come. But the reason you leave your house to go to church is to go through this exercise and I am talking about a culture that thinks it is important to exercise this part of your being. The part of your being that is tampered with when you run this sound through your body is a part of you that our culture thinks should be developed and cultivated, that you should be familiar with, that you should be able to get to as often as possible and that if it’s not developed, you are underdeveloped as a human being. If you go through your life and you don’t meet this part of yourself, somehow the culture has failed you.

[singing] Father, I stretch my hands to thee —

Once you start to put sound out on that level, you’re out. There’s no hiding place. You’re exposed. Everybody in the room has heard what you sounded like. You know what you sound like. And you can’t go back in. Then I just keep pushing them. I say, “Now that you’re out there, you might as well just pour it on.”

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] As performer, scholar and educator, Reagon’s first love is congregational singing, the music of community, nurtured from the earliest days of the black church in America.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: People who come out of the congregational tradition will sing along and they will take a song away from the choir. They will take a song and it’s called “taking a song away.” If it’s in the air, you’ve got as much right to hit it as anybody else going.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This democratic style of singing is part of Reagon’s own experience. So are the songs, a repertoire of spirituals she grew up with in rural Georgia.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: You can look at black people of a certain age and you just start almost like a stand-up repertoire and you can go 40 to 50 songs and they won’t miss a one.

I felt like there was no air I breathe that these songs didn’t exist in. I didn’t even think of them as songs. I didn’t think of them as things I needed to learn. They just came with the territory. I make that point because I feel they are not being passed today in the same way, that I’m not sure we’re feeling that black people can get to the next century without this repertoire.

[singing] Listen, little light, shine, shine, shine / Let your light shine, shine, shine / There’ll be someone down in the valley trying to get home / Let your little light shine, shine —

When you look at that body of songs, you can feel people are talking about things that happened to them every day. “Nobody knows the trouble I see.” “Wade in the water. God’s going to trouble the water.” “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” “Then my Lord delivered Daniel. Why not every man?” “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.” These songs have to do a lot more with stating a world view or positioning yourself in the world than specific songs that are instruments of a particular worship service.

This next song I learned in school from the same teacher but then I heard it sung by a blind man who had learned it from his grandmother who had been sold. Virginia’s this great slave breeding state, so so many of us who end up in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi have Virginia or Maryland roots. And this song -his grandmother had come down from Virginia, was sold on the block in Americus, Georgia -and it’s “Steal Away.” And he said it was a song that was calling people to come together to the meetings that were secret meetings and they used to go to the bush-hoppers to do them.

[singing] Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus / Steal away, steal away home —

In our tradition, we are told that crossing over -all of those words, “crossing over,” “tomorrow,” “in the morning when I rise” all of those words, all of those phrases could be applied to any practical, everyday situation, talking about changing your life. It has to be a change that was as drastic as death so that, you know, if you were saying “in the morning when I rise,” you really might be talking about “in the morning when I rise, I’m leaving.”

[singing] Lord, I couldn’t hear nobody pray, couldn’t hear nobody pray / Way down yonder by myself and I couldn’t hear nobody pray / No, I couldn’t hear nobody pray —

In terms of the underground railroad, if there had been a message sent out that people were going to be in the area to lead people out and somehow it had gotten sabotaged, this was a song you could hear in service the night before.

[singing] Hear me Jesus —

Wait a minute. Could I get the-the background is not right. Now, this is supposed to be like one of them cushions.

[singing] Couldn’t hear nobody pray-Come on! [singing] Couldn’t hear nobody pray —

The songs are free and they have the meaning placed in them by the singers so you can’t say every song that has “Canaan” means “Canada,” every song that says “crossing over Jordan” means “after I die.” It means Canada if it meant Canada. It means “crossing over Jordan when I die” if that’s what it means. It just as clearly can be a resistant song as it can be this internal nurturing of the soul.

[singing] If you don’t go… [unintelligible]

I can never think of that song without thinking of the stories of Harriet Tubman and that first trip with her brothers and then her second attempt, after they drug her back, that she went by herself. So really within the African-American experience, you could own this story. You could own any story floating in your lee. And this has to do with this every moment being special. If every moment is sacred and if you are amazed and in awe most of the time when you find yourself breathing and not crazy, then you are in a state of constant thankfulness, worship and humility.

BILL MOYERS: The astonishing thing to me, you keep saying that they would celebrate this moment, they would take the reverence of the moment, they would treat each second as a sacred experience, yet these were people suffering. These were people in slavery. These were people who had nothing to possess of their own except their tradition and their stories. These were not first-class citizens and yet you keep talking about their celebrating the moment.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: You might not have money. You might not have blah, blah, blah. But you’ve got this culture that empowers you as a unit in the universe and places you and makes you know you are a child of the universe.

BILL MOYERS: Even though you’re not free?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: When the culture is strong, you’ve got this consistency where black people can grow up in these places with this voice just resonating about our specialness in the universe. And I always say you’re in trouble if you get too far away from that core that grounds you.
[singing] Oh, see those children dressed in white / God’s going to trouble the water / You know the leader looks like that Israelite / God’s going to trouble the water / Away in the water, way in the water, wade in the water —

Black people created in this land a world and I grew up in that world. We really had to use whatever territory we could create to take care of the business of making a people and often that territory was not land. Often that territory was culture, which is why African-American culture is one of the most powerful in the world because we had to get so much business done in that arena because it was an area that we had control over. And the place where my people taught me the full range of my power as a human being was inside the black community and that took place in church, in school, on the playground.

BILL MOYERS: Why the church? Why was it so central?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: When you have a unit like that where 20 people get together and they have something called a church and maybe the missionary who baptized them was white and maybe they’re even still slaves, but they’re actually brought into an institution that says “the power is in this circle,” then you have something you can actually fashion in your own interest. And so the church was very important for this because we needed to have something we could do that with. So the church really took care a lot of the business of making a way in this world that would give us a chance to be different from the recipe that brought us here.

[singing] Run, Mary, run, I say —

That is so clear! And you can still find it in 1990, surrounded by the story. Now, every time you find a black song that says anything about “right to the tree of life,” you watch out for the song, because it is a statement in the face of a life that’s actually questioning whether that’s true.

[singing] Lord, I’ve got a right / Lord, I’ve got a right / Lord, I’ve got a right, I’ve got a right to the tree of life / Done told you I’ve got a right / Told you I’ve got a right / Told you I’ve got a right, I’ve got a right to the tree of life —

Many times we have to surround these songs with a story because there’s nothing like hearing a spiritual without understanding that it’s a radical statement. I mean, I hear people who hear

[singing] I’ve got shoes, you’ve got shoes —

And they just turn and say, “God, this old-fashioned stuff! I mean, God, my grandmother don’t even sing that no more. My grand-grandmother don’t hardly sing it.” And it’s as radical a statement as you can find. But most of the time when you hear the song today, it’s not closed with that story.

[singing] Oh, freedom / Oh, freedom / Oh, freedom over me / And before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave / I’ll go home to my Lord and be free —

Now, this song shows up not only during this period but it shows up in 1906 in Atlanta, Georgia, when white people-race riots during this period was when white people would go through the black community shooting and killing every black person they saw. And in this case in Atlanta, black people were given sanctuary, where? Clark College. The black schools let the black community in but also the black people pulled out guns and they went through the street, marching, singing this song. This song also shows up in the ’60s in the Civil Rights movement.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In the fall of 1960, as Reagon entered a segregated black college in Albany, Georgia, the Civil Rights movement was rolling across the South. Movement activists often risked their jobs and sometimes their lives challenging an unjust system. Looking back on those years, Reagon has often focused on the galvanizing power of the music. There was always singing -in the meetings, on marches, in jail -songs that rose from the church. Reagon herself was expelled from college when she joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, young people performing the dangerous work of voter registration in rural counties. Reagon also joined a quartet called the Freedom Singers. They took the music of the movement to audiences all around the country.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: It’s when you strike out for freedom, which gets you killed if you get caught, but you have a chance to be free. So you go to the most-the highest risk and you absolutely are guaranteed that you can change yourself. Of course, you can be killed, too, but, you know, you’re not always killed when you risk everything but you can guarantee that if you risk everything, if you just take the-any kind of risk where you’ve, like, gone, taking care of everything, being sure everything’s pressed and in order or just go past it and you’re different. So when I’m working with people singing, I try to get them to do it. I just try to persuade people to go ahead and take the risk.

BILL MOYERS: Through song?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Sound is a way to extend the territory you can affect, so people can walk into you way before they can get close to your body. And certainly the communal singing that people do together is a way of announcing that we’re here, that this is real. And so anybody who comes into that space, as long as you’re singing, they cannot change the air in that space. The song will maintain the air as your territory. And I’ve seen meetings where a sheriff has walked into a mass meeting and established the air because this is a sheriff everybody knows. And they’re taking pictures or taking names and you just know your job is in trouble and blah, blah, blah. The only way people could take the space back was by starting a song. And inevitably, when police would walk into mass meetings, somebody would start a song and then people would, like, join in and, like, as people joined in, the air would change.

BILL MOYERS: You talk about, you know, “This Little Light of Mine” was what people could do, could sing when they were scared, when they were in trouble.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: A lot of these black, old songs are “I” songs-“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” So when you get a group-now, changing songs to “we,” like “We shall not be moved” and “We shall overcome,” that’s the presence of white people in collaboration with black people because in order to express community, you have to go to the first person plural. And in the black community, when you want the communal expression, everybody says “I.” So if there are five of us here and all of us say “I,” then you know that

there’s a group. And a lot of times I’ve found when people say “we” they’re giving you a cover to not say whether they’re going to be there or not. So the “I” songs are very important. So “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine” means that when the march goes, I am going to be there. So it really is a way of saying “The life that I have, I will offer to this thing.”

And we grow up in a culture, as black people, where we were really-we really got strong messages about being visible and that the best way to be was to have this sheen and move almost as if nobody could tell you were there. You know, whatever job you had, if you could just get it done and just-and the cooler you were about it, the more you were applauded, to the extent that people really had to go through a barrier to stick out. Now, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine” is just crashing through all of it. It is a very arrogant stance. “Everywhere I go, I’m going to let it shine.” And sometimes I used to say, “Well, you know, I’m going to shine so bright, you’re going to have to have shades on to see me!” And that’s something-many times, that was the way we felt. If you get a bunch of black people together walking down some of these Southern streets, you had never seen that yourself, in the march, so you really are very clear that you are sticking out. And so that’s that “This little light of mine” song.

BILL MOYERS: Where I grew up, in the Central Baptist Church in Marshall, Texas, that was a song of humility. “My light is small but I’ll let it do the work that it can.”

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Those preachers will find a lot of ways to keep people down! I mean, can you imagine what would happen in a church if everybody really decided that, you know, they could shine as bright as they wanted to?

BILL MOYERS: Or as bright as the preacher.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Yes, well, you know, that’s why you ended up with the Pentecostal church.

BILL MOYERS: With all the expressive emotion and the charismatic music.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: In most Baptist churches-you probably didn’t grow up in a church that had “possessions.”

BILL MOYERS: No.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Well, in most Baptist churches, a lot of times possession came in the service through the sermon —

BILL MOYERS: Possession of the spirit.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: The spirit seizes you.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Through the sermon. Pentecostal churches, it’s open season. They just open up and it is accessible for everybody. At any point, the rhythms and the energy in the spirit would be there. So operating at full power, and inviting people in the congregation to operate at full power, is a very important Africanism within the society, not being afraid of a room of very powerful people and actually stimulating people to operate at full power and not feeling you have to make them bank their power.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The power of communal singing in Afro-American history is an experience that Reagon has introduced to the Smithsonian. She organized this reunion there with the Freedom Singers and Civil Rights activists for the 1988 anniversary celebration for Martin Luther King. In almost two decades at the Smithsonian, Reagon has created a medley of harmony and history. Her program notes and articles are like field guides to a living culture and she has encouraged exhibits like this one. Called “From Field to Factory,” it documents the 20th Century migration of blacks from the rural south to the urban north. Over the years, as a composer and performer, as a soloist or with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Reagon’s music has taken her audiences through a journey of discovery and celebration. In addition to the sacred and protest traditions of Afro-American music, she has honored the heroines of black history by writing songs for them.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: This next song is about a woman named Ella Baker. She’s put over 50 years in struggle for justice in this country for her people and for human beings. And she says, ”We who believe in freedom should not rest until the killing of black men”

ELLA BAKER: -black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: She was talking about the Civil Rights movement workers who had been murdered in Mississippi in 1964. And as they searched for the bodies of the three missing workers, they turned up bodies of black men in the rivers of Mississippi that nobody had searched for because they were black and they did not get killed with white men. She was angry about that.

[singing] We who believe in freedom cannot rest / We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes / We who believe in freedom cannot rest / We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes / Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons / Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons / We who believe in freedom cannot rest / We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes —

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Another of Reagon’s heroines is Fannie Lou Hamer. The 20th child of sharecroppers in Mississippi, Hamer had six years of schooling and many more picking cotton. When she tried to register to vote in 1962, she was fired from her job weighing cotton. She was 45 years old and from then on an activist.

[interviewing] Most of us think of her as a great speaker and a good politician and strategist but she was also a wonderful singer, wasn’t she? She so often began her public performances with a song-“Remember me, oh Lord, remember me.”

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: She teaches us something about the culture because if you come at it from the Western perspective, you’ll be trying to sort out whether I’m a singer or Fannie Lou was a singer or a speaker or an organizer who could sing and speak. But if you just look at her, she’s just a fierce warrior. That’s Fannie Lou Hamer. She’s a warrior who could sing and could speak and could organize and could-you know, just a multi-talented, fierce, fierce fighter.

BILL MOYERS: Warrior is certainly how I remember her. In 1964, when she led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the rump group, to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, she wouldn’t accept the compromise that LBJ offered her, two delegates at large in exchange for seating the all-white delegation.

[voice-over] I was working for President Lyndon Johnson at that convention in Atlantic City. Outside the convention hall, a delegation called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party gathered to protest the racism of voter registration laws. Blacks were kept from elected office in Mississippi although in many counties they outnumbered whites four to one. So they came to the convention to challenge Mississippi’s all-white delegation. The issue was whether the challengers would gain access to the floor of the convention and be seated. Fannie Lou Hamer was a leader of that delegation.

REPORTER: Will you identify yourself for us please?

FANNIE LOU HAMER: My name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m the
vice chairman of the Freedom Democrat Party.

REPORTER: Where did you get the credentials to get into the
building tonight, Mrs. Hamer?

FANNIE LOU HAMER: Some old friends of ours gave us an invitation to come in. We sit with them awhile and we wanted to sit in our own state.

REPORTER: Do you have any kind of credentials that will get
you into these seats?

FANNIE LOU HAMER: No, we don’t, only as American citizens.

BILL MOYERS: And Lyndon Johnson sent Hubert Humphrey to see her. He was a great friend of the Civil Rights movement and he pleaded with her to accept the compromise or, he said, “I won’t be nominated vice president.” And according to Humphrey, she looked at him and she said, “Well, Mr. Humphrey, which is more important to you, your career or the lives of 400,000 black people in Mississippi?” And she didn’t accept that compromise.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Right.

BILL MOYERS: Tough, stood up to the President and the Vice President of the United States.

FANNIE LOU HAMER: If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives be threatened daily be
cause we want to live as decent human beings in America? Thank you.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: She looked like all of the black women I knew. She was hefty. She was short. She had a singing voice very much like the women who came out of our church. She didn’t look like my teacher. She looked like the usher on the usher board. So she looked like a person that was very much like-she looked real regular. And what I saw was the clarity. She was so clear! And there was such a breath of fresh air. And she was so powerful. She was describing people shooting at her and beating her and she was fine. I really liked the feeling that in the midst of the most intense danger, there could be a sense of peace and safety, that you really could speak with immense anger about a situation, and what people listening to you felt was how much love you had in you. Those are not lessons you get often. She was always so clear and so strong and insistent and she was so mad and she was so loving. It was just-I really needed to meet a black woman like that.

BILL MOYERS: Did you ever get to sing with her?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Many, many, many, many times. I altoed for Fan Lou Hamie. There’s this clip at Atlantic City where Fannie was singing “Go tell it on the mountain” and I’m standing right next to her and I’m the alto and it’s one of my favorite things to look at.

FANNIE LOU HAMER: [singing] [unintelligible] began to shout / Let my people go / Door are open and they walk out / Let my people go / Go tell it on the mountain / Over the hills and everywhere / Go tell it on the mountain to let my people go —

BILL MOYERS: What’s the source of inspiration now, today, in the contemporary world? The Bible, those old spirituals, those old stories, the church no longer has-no long have the hold on black Americans the way they once did.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I don’t know if I have any particular answers. When I talk about the Civil Rights movement, I’m talking about my coming into my position as an adult human being. I talk about the Civil Rights movement because that, the time I had, that’s the battle ground where I was formed as a fighter. I think every generation has an equivalent or even bigger opportunity to cut its teeth on its issues of the day. When I look at contemporary society and I think of the young people who are the age that I was when I was in the Civil Rights movement, I think they’ve really got an amazing system of crises and challenges.

BILL MOYERS: But I’ve heard-I’ve actually had young African Americans in the ghetto say to me that the freedom songs are not relevant to them anymore. The spirituals are not relevant to them. And I think we all know that there are black middle class folk who find the old spirituals somehow offensive, if not embarrassing to them. Have you experienced that?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: The younger people may not sing “This little light of mine.” They do sing a freedom song. If you listen to their songs, they are very, very clear about using their songs to echo the world they look at. I don’t know where it will go, where it will end. They don’t have to sing what I sing but I have to tell them how I did what I did and they can make some use of it. A freedom song is a freedom song. The only requirement within the African tradition is that it must express your need to change your situation.

[singing] There’s a child a-crying / He’s crying for freedom in South Africa —

I have a daughter who-I wrote a song, “There’s a new world coming. Where are you going to be standing when it comes?” Not out of the post-Civil Rights movement, in terms of the ’60s. She called me several months ago and said, “Mommy, we’ve written a song.” I said, “What song have we written?” And she says, “Well, it’s called ‘Where are you going to be standing?'” And I said, “Well”-I said, “Are you sure it’s from my-, she said, “I clearly-this is so much your song that when I copyright it, I have to say you helped-you wrote it with me.” I said, “But I wasn’t there.” So, like, there are these stories about younger people. They do listen to us if we’re telling the story.

[singing] Your children are not your children / They are the sons and the daughters of life longing for itself / They come through you but they are not from you / And though they are with you, they belong not to you / You can give them your love but not your thoughts / They have their own thoughts / They have their own thoughts / You can house their bodies but not their souls / For their souls dwell in a place of tomorrow / Which you cannot even in your dreams / You can strive to be like them / But you cannot make them look like you —

BILL MOYERS: Does it disturb you that groups like the 2 Live Crew use the lyrics and the sentiments, the anger and the violence that they use to tell their stories?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I don’t like the abuse of women. I don’t like the abuse of children. I don’t like racism. I don’t like poverty. I don’t like military intervention of other countries. I don’t separate those evils. I don’t like corporations that destroy the environment. Those are things that just consistently feel to me to be outside of the kind of world I want to build, I want to work with building. To pick up one group and to list their particular expressions that I don’t like, as opposed to, say, a drug dealer or a president invading a country or a company being totally violent in terms of its responsibilities to its community, that sort of like actually a manipulation. So I have to say that I’m very concerned when I look at the world we live in at how dangerous it is for women to survive. It is very, very dangerous for women. It is very dangerous for children. So any message that expresses comfort and nurturing for those range of ideas, whether it’s a song or a poem or a presidential speech, I do not like and it bothers me. And my life is to be sure that there’s something else in the airwaves.

[singing] [No worries ain’t like mine]

BILL MOYERS: I remember thinking during the Civil Rights movement of-I saw women stand in the pulpit of black churches, Baptist churches, where no woman had ever stood in the pulpit of a white church, and I noticed that you, in your writings and in your singing and in our conversation, use the word “nurturing” quite often.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: When I think about nurturing, I think about giving comfort. And I do think that women, black women, for our people, have been phenomenal nurturers for our people. In the Baptist church, women have not always been welcome in the pulpit. The Civil Rights movement was one time when I experienced a difference. And sometimes you really need things to be thrown up in your community, everything to be turned over in such a way so you have another chance to look at what you have put together. And in any culture, any people, any history, throwing things up gives you a chance to be selective about what you will carry forward. It was very important for me as a woman to go through the Civil Rights movement and see women in leadership roles. It was important to me as a young person to be in jail and to be chosen, not by vote but just by deference, as a leader because I seemed to be so clear about why I was there.

BILL MOYERS: Do you see much evidence of nurturing today?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Yeah. I really see an immense struggle taking shape in our communities where people are really trying to claim our communities as places where human beings can develop and grow. And that struggle might make the Civil Rights movement look like a picnic.

BILL MOYERS: Is there any music yet that is coming out and —

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: There’s always music. And Sweet Honey in the Rock is in the middle of the music.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me about that name. How did you come up with the name Sweet Honey in the Rock?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I don’t sing old songs unless they occupy me, which means I have to be walking around and then I find this song has just taken up residence in my head. And sometimes I look at it-and it’s like I find myself humming it. And in ’73, when I started Sweet Honey in the Rock, I had never sung the song in my life. I had heard quartets sing it in Georgia. And I knew that it’s a part of black and white sacred music tradition and there was this “sweet honey in the rock” in my head. So the first time I pulled this group together, it’s the first song I taught them. Then I had to call my father and say, “OK, what is sweet honey in the rock?” He’s a Baptist minister and he said, “It’s a parable that talks about a land that is so rich that when you crack the rocks, honey flows from it.” And I grew to really embrace those concepts because there’s so much around, sweetness and honey and strength in rocks that seemed to be not possible in the same package. And I always knew that as a strong person, I was also sweet-sometimes. You know, honey is like that. If it’s hot, it flows and if it’s cold, it just stiffens up on you, you know. So I really got to like the rage in the phrase. And it seemed to say so much about the African-American women’s experience of having to be steady, all of the properties that you can think about when you think of a rock -mountain -and also being a nurturer, being a lover, being a person who needed connections and embracing with other people.

BILL MOYERS: Does it remain the favorite in your repertory? You’ve sung all over the world and keep writing new songs. But does it remain one that you take with you to the hereafter?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I don’t have a favorite. I only have the song I’m singing today.

[singing] Let your little light shine, shine, shine / Let your little
light shine, shine, shine / Maybe someone down in the valley trying
to get home —

I love the message of that song. You never know when you tell a story and it might be a light that somebody needs at that moment and that’s why I tell these stories. Thank you very much.

This transcript was entered on May 19, 2015.

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