FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Raised Voices of Sweet Honey in the Rock

by FREDERICK B. HUDSON

One of the great attributes of stars in the heavens is that as they lose energy in burning, they find new areas to warm and light. Such is the musical phenomena of six women who sing a cappella of love and longing, of sorrow and redemption, of pain and plenty–for thirty years they have called themselves “Sweet Honey in the Rock.”

Founded by singer, musicologist, and civil rights activist Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon in 1973, the group derived its name from a Biblical parable about a land so rich that honey literally flowed from a rock. The music draws upon the heritage of emotional release that has made African-derived songs and dances the strongest contributions offered by African Americans in the United States.

Weaving song formats ranging from spirituals with a call and response format to African nature chants, Reagon and her protégés have expanded the concept of neighborhood to form blocks bounded by rivers and congregations covering oceans.

The timelessness of the group’s music is realized when they take the stage, dressed in black gowns with faces covered with black veils and sing a moving tribute to mothers around the world who have lost children to violence. The dirge, called simply “The Women Gather,” is filmed by director Stanley Nelson in a ninety minute production airing on PBS stations on Wednesday, June 29 at 9 p.m. In the New York City area, the program will appear on Channel 13. In other areas, program information can be obtained on www.pbs.org. This premiere coincides with the release of the DVD and CD version of “Raise Your Voice.”

Nelson’s documentary, “Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice” shown as part of the American Masters series, is the award-winning director’s first attempt to film a music-based subject. His crew toured with the group during their 30th year anniversary tour covering nine American cities and capturing the inner lives and behind the scenes moments which have coalesced into the music that the women singers encourage their audiences to remember because “you might need a song for a demonstration soon.”

Nelson has garnered international recognition for documentaries exploring deceased historical figures including Emmett Till, Marcus Garvey, and Madame C.J. Walker. But his chronicle of Reagon’s notes presented a unique challenge and surprise. In the middle of the tour Reagon announced to her singers that she would retire from the group at the end of their engagements.

The individual and group challenges faced by the remaining singers who had unflinchingly accepted their mentor’s constant admonitions during rehearsals that “we are not getting what we need from you!” can serve as models for students of organizational behavior. The very content of the songs the singers presented to audiences gave them the needed signposts to accept their mandates to carry on the mission of the group and to audition around the country for Reagon’s replacement.

Before she left the group, Reagon told the world’s adults and children: “we spend a lot of time and effort trying to stay on the other side of death. We are all going to die anyway. You might as well make a difference.”

As stars can explode and form other solar systems, Sweet Honey has spun off into other musical groups. One former singer, Edwina Lee Tyler started a group called A Piece of the World which has toured Europe, Canada and the United States. Bernice Reagon’s own daughter Toshi, a former member of Honey in the Rock has started her own group, a rock band called Big Loverly. A reunion concert with Big Loverly is featured in Nelson’s documentary.

These spin-offs of creative energy are not surprising since Bernice Reagon encouraged all the singers in the group to write songs that illuminated their passions. Thus Sweet Honey’s songs have covered terrain as diverse as the plight of a black woman prisoner who killed her jailer who was trying to rape her; an almost forgotten martyred black civil rights leader in Florida who registered more voters in Florida than any other freedom fighter to African chants celebrating the lure and beauty of nature.

The difference the group makes is evidenced by the presence at every performance of an American Sign Language interpreter who signs the words of the songs to the many deaf attendees who feels the energy and power through vibrations that pulse through their bodies. “Raise Your Voice” exhorts the viewer to hold fast to Bernice Reagon’s command to the audiences and singers to “take the song out of my mouth, if you don’t know the words.”

We take a lot more than the song, we take stands, see visions, cross bridges, hold hands, cross galaxies. As one commentator points out in the film: “when my song merges with yours, you lose your loneliness.”

FREDERICK B. HUDSON can be reached at: FHdsn@aol.com

 

 

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
March 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump is Obama’s Legacy: Will this Break up the Democratic Party?
Eric Draitser
Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nothing Was Delivered
Paul Buhle
The CIA and the Intellectuals…Again
Andrew Levine
Ryan’s Choice
Joshua Frank
Global Coal in Freefall, Tar Sands Development Drying Up
John Wight
London and the Dreary Ritual of Terrorist Attacks
Anthony DiMaggio
Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics
Vijay Prashad
Inventing Enemies
David Rosen
Why Did Trump Target Transgender Youth?
Bill Willers
Volunteerism; Charisma; the Ivy League Stranglehold: a Very Brief Trilogy
Lawrence Davidson
Moral Failure at the UN
Pete Dolack
World Bank Declares Itself Above the Law
Nicola Perugini - Neve Gordon
Israel’s Human Rights Spies
Ralph Nader
Reason and Justice Address Realities
Ramzy Baroud
‘Decolonizing the Mind’: Using Hollywood Celebrities to Validate Islam
Colin Todhunter
Monsanto in India: The Sacred and the Profane
Louisa Willcox
Grizzlies Under the Endangered Species Act: How Have They Fared?
Norman Pollack
Militarization of American Fascism: Trump the Usurper
Pepe Escobar
North Korea: The Real Serious Options on the Table
Brian Cloughley
“These Things Are Done”: Eavesdropping on Trump
Carol Wolman
Trump vs the People: a Psychiatrist’s Analysis
Farhang Jahanpour
America’s Woes, Europe’s Responsibilities
Joseph Natoli
March Madness Outside the Basketball Court
Bruce Mastron
Slaughtered Arabs Don’t Count
Ayesha Khan
The Headscarf is Not an Islamic Compulsion
Ron Jacobs
Music is Love, Music is Politics
Christopher Brauchli
Prisoners as Captive Customers
M. Shadee Malaklou
An Open Letter to Duke University’s Class of 2007, About Your Open Letter to Stephen Miller
Robert Koehler
The Mosque That Disappeared
Barbara Nimri Aziz
The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Marines to Kill Desert Tortoises
Charles R. Larson
Review: David Bellos’s “Novel of the Century: the Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables”
March 23, 2017
Chip Gibbons
Crusader-in-Chief: the Strange Rehabilitation of George W. Bush
Michael J. Sainato
Cybersecurity Firm That Attributed DNC Hacks to Russia May Have Fabricated Russia Hacking in Ukraine
Chuck Collins
Underwater Nation: As the Rich Thrive, the Rest of Us Sink
CJ Hopkins
The United States of Cognitive Dissonance
Howard Lisnoff
BDS, Women’s Rights, Human Rights and the Failings of Security States
Mike Whitney
Will Washington Risk WW3 to Block an Emerging EU-Russia Superstate
John Wight
Martin McGuinness: Man of War who Fought for Peace in Ireland
Linn Washington Jr.
Ryancare Wreckage
Eileen Appelbaum
What We Learned From Just Two Pages of Trump’s Tax Returns
Mark Weisbrot
Ecuador’s Elections: Why National Sovereignty Matters
Thomas Knapp
It’s Time to End America’s Longest War
Chris Zinda
Aggregate Journalism at Salon
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail