Kim and Reggie Harris: The civil rights songs we’ll sing 100 years from now

A few nights ago about 1,000 people—all Quakers—stood in a basketball arena in Providence, Rhode Island and sang together. Out loud.

“Quakers are not known for singing,” says musician, historian, songwriter, and performer Reggie Harris, who led the performance with his wife Kim. “They’re known for silence.

“We sang for 2 hours.”

Woody Guthrie would have loved it.

This weekend as the country celebrates Guthrie’s 100-year-old legacy and catalog of songs about the plight of the common man—Reggie and Kim Harris bring to Aberdeen the music and stories they’ve collected over the past 30-years performing and touring together; songs that “sing out for justice.”

“We become who we are through our songs and our stories, as much as through our kin, our communities and our countries. So sing out! And let our songs ring of justice and guide our feet into the ways of peace.” – Kim Harris

Mentored by the group-singing philosophies of Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger, Kim and Reggie Harris are keepers and collectors of the music and stories that sparked social change—from hidden instructions in songs about the Underground Railroad to the rally cry of African American Civil Rights movement in the mid-50s to mid-60s.

And with a new record set to release in September — the first in 4 years — Reggie and Kim are ready to release songs written from a new, deeply personal place.

Talking from a songwriting camp in Suwanee, Georgia, Reggie talks about the new record, life after a liver transplant, and the civil rights song they’ll sing 100 years from now.

About the new record

It’s been a long time since we made a record that had so many of our original songs. The last CD (Simplicity) had several original songs as well as themes about the Civil Rights movement, such as “Let My People Go,” and “Get on Board.”

This (new CD) is primarily an original CD. It’s our first recording in 4 years, and it’s a celebration of my coming back from my liver transplant. It took 13 years for this disease to destroy my liver. I’ve been on a wait list for 10 years. I finally got sick enough to qualify for a transplant 6 months before a liver came available.

So (this new music) is a celebration of life. My writing comes from a much deeper place after having come through such a traumatic crisis. And Kim and I are having new musical conversations with each other.

The civil rights songs we’ll sing 100 years from now

There’s a song on the new record called “Traffic” about human trafficking. Twenty seven million people around the world are still involved in slavery and trafficking. It also ties into the immigration issue.

And there’s a continuation of Civil Rights songs as it pertains to African Americans and Hispanic Americans. There’s a movement toward a more inclusive society overall. We’re also seeing a groundswell of change around homophobia and same sex marriage.

We’re teaching at Suwanee (Georgia) right now, to a group of young people from Montgomery College and we talk to them about sexism, ageism, and homophobia. Their take is: “What is it with you old people?”

We watched this group of multi-racial, multi-ethnic groups, hanging with each other. They’re comfortable being together in the differences that many of us older folks struggle with.

We’re teaching them about the Civil Rights movement and singing those songs, and they’re soaking up that information and immediately looking at what it means for us today.

They’ve been reflecting on how music can influence social change, and they’ve said that they’ll be writing and singing more. One girl told me she used to only sing in the shower, but after this: No more. They see how powerful (music) is.

Permission to sing out loud

We’re hard wired for songs and stories. Sometimes we just need to remember that singing together is fun. We’re so often alone in our own isolation. Through music, we can remind ourselves about the difficult issues we want avoid.

It’s what we’ve been doing all along, but we intensified our energy around this 15 years ago. We were noticing in our (songwriting and music) teaching, that people were more interested in singing their own songs, or singing solo.

Mostly, people learned to sing in schools or churches, but with arts and music programs being cut so drastically, we don’t have the same kind of resources that we used to have.

(Summer) camps became specialized for horseback riding, math, computer and mathematics. We’re not really singing there the way that we used to. So we decided to bring it back, and with a little prodding, people are willing to do it.

And coming out of communities that were all about singing and community singing; having mentors like Seeger and Belafonte—people who really understood the power of song as it relates to movements (and social change)—we decided to focus ourselves.

People are willing to do it, they just need permission. Songs have to be taught.

by Molly McGinn 

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