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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