Women Musicians for Civil Rights: International Women’s Day and Selma50

Diane Nash (played by Tessa Thompson in the recent movie SELMA), Fannie Lou Hamer, and thousands of other women helped to lead the civil rights movement. This year, as Women’s Day (March 8) coincides with the powerful commemorations of the marches in Selma AL that led to the Voting Rights Act, I honor them all.

One woman, though, brought these struggles together with another theme even closer to my soul– music! Bernice Johnson Reagon —singer, songleader, musicology scholar, teacher—has been an inspiration since I first heard her group Sweet Honey In the Rock perform in the mid-1970s. She’d been part of the musical wing of the civil rights movement since 1964, and stayed at the core of the political end of the Folk Revival, later becoming a professor of history at American University and a music curator at the Smithsonian Institution.

reagon_bernice_johnsonIn 1980, I was making my own small pathway through political songmaking, and was completely honored to share a stage with her at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. Our “Women’s Music” workshop was a round-robin format with three other musicians: Canadian songwriter Ferron and my longtime pals, then touring as a duo, Cathy Winter & Betsy Rose.

Bernice had a strong presence, and insisted that everyone match her. When folks in the mixed audience (mostly-white, at least one-third male) weren’t singing her call-response lines with adequate enthusiasm, she stopped the song, stepped to the edge of the stage, and swiftly demolished any shyness, isolation, or fear-of-false-move inhibitions.

“Now look,” she said, “Every single person here has a strong woman inside of you. And if you reach down deep enough, she’s Black. So LET ME HEAR YOU SING!!” And off we went, finding richer harmonies and power in the anthems she taught than most of us had ever experienced.

Here is her interview with Bill Moyers.

barnwellBernice met and drew into her circle another wonderful musician whom I met more recently, Ysaye Barnwell. Ysaye anchored the lowest harmonies of  Sweet Honey for more than 20 years, and has composed and taught important solo and choral work of her own. Attending her “Building a Vocal Community” workshop, which traces the roots of African-American song, was a highlight of 2013; if this program appears near you, don’t miss it.

The music continues, even as these fore-mothers step a bit closer to retirement. Please check out their bios and their glorious songs, and “reach down deep enough” to drink from their well of inspiration. Happy Women’s Day!!

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