IN ITS eight years of existence, Sweet Honey in the Rock has become as historically vital as the National Archives. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Evelyn Maria Harris, Ysaye Maria Barnwell and Yasmeen Bheti Williams have refracted the historic struggles of being black, and particularly of being black women, in powerful songs that expose ancient wounds only to heal them. Church-born in slavery days, their music draws equal inspiration from the moaners' bench and the street corner; it is vital and unique and, like the rock of biblical parable, reveals layers of strength and gentility with each new encounter.
Formed in 1974 by Reagon, the group sings unaccompanied except for the whispered twirls of the African shakere, a hollow gourd covered with a beaded fish net. The four powerful voices swell from ancient hearts, moving in their own time, ornate communal textures layered above the vibrant colors of each individual voice. It is an a capella sound rooted in the black church and traceable to slavery days when religious experience was a rare, unguarded freedom. There are echoes of faith in Sweet Honey's sound but there is also a confrontational activism, a challenging of assumptions. Through crystal clear lyrics, the singers connect black American music and black African music, ongoing struggles in Soweto and Chile and South Carolina, and the political, social and personal.
"Good News" (Flying Fish FF245), the group's third album, was recorded live during a Seventh Anniversary Concert at Washington's All Souls Unitarian Church in late 1980. It brilliantly captures the warmth and conviction of the singers and confirms the grandeur of the human voice. "Good News" is surprisingly subtle, its slow deliberate melodies serving as a frame on which the singers weave elastic harmony. "Breaths," built upon a poem by Birago Diop, suggests that "the dead have a pact with the living," a lesson of history and sociology that courses through the album. It is structured almost as a round, with the rich blend of voices flowing into each other and emerging as a melody.
Reagon's "Echo" evokes a traditional spiritual, with wordless harmonies wavering behind her lyrics before racing to emotional conclusions. The song establishes another recurring theme--"the sounds of struggle you hear/that are filling your world today/are echoes of the voices your father killed and smothered away/you can steal my tongue--go on and try to hush my song/My scream of freedom will flood the air of your children centuries unborn/Nothing but an echo of the past."
The album is crowded with politics and history--the bitter "Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto"; the fervent "Biko"; and "If You Had Lived" questions contemporary commitment to issues confronted by Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Joe Hill, Paul Robeson and others. Women's roles and responsibility are also skillfully addressed: Harris' jazz experience comes through in a sensually mournful "Time on My Hands," while Reagon's beautiful melody for "Sometime" calls for personal communion. Here and throughout the album, the singing is superb--earthy, expansive, inspirational to the 10th power.
Reagon twice turns to poet June Jordan for lyrics and comes away with the R&B-like frame of "Ought to Be a Woman" (which distills the tension, pride, pain and anonymity of a black matriarch) and the earthy "Alla That's All Right But" ("somebody come and carry me into a seven day kiss . . ."). The singing throughout is magnificent, ranging from subtle whispers to exuberant shouts. Each singer's voice seems a valve on a common instrument, casting individual lines yet also resolving into chilling harmonies.
This is most apparent on "Oh Death," a Reagon song that seems pulled from a storefront church. Edging forward like molasses, the melody sways like a ghost wind catching the voices like leaves; they swirl around the line, swooping, gliding, embellishing, independent yet aware of each other; they reach a gradual agreement and move forward together, always building the heart of the song even as the harmonies pull at each other. "Oh Death" resolves its tension by seguing into the title cut, a contemporary gospel tune, but its haunting echoes linger long in the mind.
Reagon, a veteran of the Freedom Singers in the '60s, has also compiled a very important historical project for the Smithsonian. "Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966" (Smithsonian R023) is a three-record set drawn from tapes made in churches, on marches and on the picket line during that struggle for basic human rights. Music was always an integral part of the black freedom movement--Martin Luther King Jr. once described it as "vital to our struggle"; it confirmed strength of purpose and sense of community in hard and dangerous times.
It was not solo protest music, but throroughly congregational. "Voices" is alive with a sense of that movement, from the joyfully intense mass meetings to the bitter ironies propounded by the smaller ensembles to the empassioned work of songleaders like Reagon and Fannie Lou Hamer. An army of songs marches purposefully through the '60s soundscape, from "Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom" to "We Shall Overcome." "Voices" is not just stunning emotional history, it is also a powerful portrait of a people for whom the struggle is far from over. The set is available at Smithsonian shops or by mail order ($19.98) from Smithsonian Recordings, P.O. Box 10230, Des Moines, Iowa 50336.
Finally, Reagon can be heard on several selections from "For Somebody to Start Singin," a Watershed Foundation tape featuring the poems and lyrics of June Jordan, two of whose songs appear on "Good News." Since black poetry has traditionally reflected the oral tradition, much of Jordan's writing approaches a capella song. Jordan lacks Reagon's charismatic delivery, but she obviously knows the intent of her words and gives them emphasis and inflections that only she could. The hour-long tape is available for $8.95 from Watershed Foundation, P.O. Box 50145, Washington, D.C. 20004. photo: Sweet Honey in the Rock