Reggie Harris is a songwriter, storyteller, educator, and folk icon. No, literally. This year, Harris was awarded The Spirit of Folk Award from Folk Alliance International — as well as W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Award by the Du Bois Legacy Festival in Great Barrington, Mass. His career as a folksinger has spanned four decades, with musical collaborators and activist compatriots such as Pete Seeger, Dr. Kim Harris, C.T. Vivian, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Greg Greenway, David Roth, and many more. BGS is proud to host Harris on the sixth episode of our Shout & Shine livestream series on Wednesday, June 23 at 4pm PDT / 7pm EDT. (Tune in here via the video player below, our YouTube channel, or our Facebook page.)
The joy and hope evident in Harris’ 2021 release, On Solid Ground, stem from a rooted sense of perseverance and from his intentional decision to face each and every moment, in the moment, and to find hope within each. It’s why such heavy topics don’t feel gargantuan or burdensome as they make appearances and anchor songs on the album. Harris, watching the social, political, and racial reckonings that bubbled onto the sidewalks and streets of every city in America over the course of the last year, didn’t sit down or give up in the face of the unclimbable summit of translating that reckoning into song.
On Solid Ground feels solid and grounded, but also soars – unencumbered by whatever aspects of its content and lyrics might be perceived as pitfalls or minefields to so many. Harris, as only a folksinger-storyteller can, weaves a reality that can indeed rise to the occasion of this twenty-first century civil rights movement. We just have to choose to be present to usher in that reality — which, it’s important to note, will have an excellent soundtrack.
BGS caught up with Reggie Harris over the phone on May 28, Memorial Day weekend and the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre.
BGS: I wanted to start off with “It’s Who We Are,” which leads off the album. It makes the point that the political and social turmoil of the last few years aren’t really anything new, but rather are pretty natural outgrowths of who we’ve always been — as a culture and as a society. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why you wanted to reinforce that point and kick off your album with that song? You’re making the point that this isn’t an aberration, this is who we are.
RH: [Laughs] I do a lot of work, a lot of educational and historical performing — both in schools and around the country — and the question always comes up, with audiences of all ages, “How far have we come?” And, “Who are we?” These things happen around the country, incidents like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and also the incident in New York City with the Coopers — Amy Cooper and [Black birder, Christian Cooper]. People are constantly tweeting as if [these incidents] are one-offs, that each is an aberration. So I’d been working on writing a song for a while that basically says our nation was founded with white supremacy and racial issues from the very beginning. And we have been struggling with that. Obviously, we have made some progress over time, but we see that these things are so temporary — and the proliferation of them over the last two years particularly, and through the pandemic, really brought it to the fore.
I kept looking at all of that, and I started writing that song– I’m not a writer that likes to just put things out there, constantly pointing out all the difficult and sometimes dangerous events. I love to tie into hope and I couldn’t talk my way through it. I wrote about twenty-seven verses. And it was getting more and more dark all the time! [Laughs]
I have to admit, when I finished recording the song, I turned to Greg Greenway, my co-producer, and said, “I don’t know if I want to put this first.” [Laughs] We went back and forth and back and forth and finally — I was actually going to begin with Malvina Reynolds’ “It Isn’t Nice” and Greg turned to me one day and said, “No, this is the album statement. I think we gotta just put it out there.” And I said yes, and there you go! You need to have some courage in the work that you do. I’ve been looking to people like C.T. Vivian and John Lewis and all the sacrifices that people like Fannie Lou Hamer made. And all the amazing icons of civil rights history.
As I was thinking about this point — that this is exactly who we are and always have been — I was listening to “Let’s Meet Up Early,” and there’s a lyric, “It ain’t no mystery… don’t try to act surprised.”
So this is a point you are making indelibly across the record! [Laughs]
Yes, well it is. And this came out of about three weeks of just sitting at home, watching the nation unravel. I wrote “On Solid Ground,” because that’s kind of where I live, you know, in the spirituals, saying that we can make it through this, we can persevere. But we can’t make it through it if we don’t acknowledge it.
I feel very blessed to have come up in a community in Philadelphia and throughout that demonstrated having hope. The folks that I grew up with, in Philadelphia, my elders, and then as I progressed not only as a person, but as a musician I have had such amazing [role models]. If you look at the musicians — and all those folks in my community, they’d sing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round!” And, “Oh, Freedom:” “Before I’d be a slave/ I’d be buried in my grave/”
One day we will be free. And we’re going to keep working at this.
We had C.T. Vivian at a conference I helped to put on in 2015 and he said, “We knew that we were working for something bigger than ourselves. We knew that we needed to have good leadership — and we did. We knew that we were working in the frame of love. For something, not against.” I try to keep those messages at the forefront of my writing, at the forefront of my performing. I know that a lot of white Americans have trouble embracing a lot of this because it brings up a lot of guilt, or it brings up this feeling there’s this huge thing you weren’t aware of. I just want to say to people: There are forces and systems that are trying to make sure you don’t know about this stuff. You’re not to blame for not knowing, but once you know — I think it was Maya Angelou that said, “When you know better you do better.” [Laughs]
I look at that and my own role in this is just to pass along what was given to me. I came up in a community that understood the nature of perseverance, that understood the nature of hope and working towards hope realizing that you’re not going to get everything at once. But, you might get some of it and then you pass that along. I think the songs, for me, are conduits to giving away this gift that I’ve been given. As I write I just always try to remember that people always gave me hope – and they did it mostly through songs.
I’m not a writer who’s working at it all the time. I know friends of mine, folks who sit down every day and they either write a song or they tape something. I’ve never been that way, I really have kind of evolved into a person who’s eyes-wide-open in the moment. I’m very much focused on what’s happening around me and focused on noticing those opportunities. That’s one of the things that doing a lot of work with kids [has honed]. You really have to be present with kids. [Laughs] You come in with an idea of what you want to do, but if it feels at all like you aren’t including them or that you aren’t present, they’ll entertain themselves! I think I’ve developed a real sense of being in the moment, being charged with seeing those small windows of opportunity. Of course, I had a lot more of them in the pandemic! [Laughs] At home an unbelievably impressive amount of time.
A lot of it is also balancing. I’m very careful not to watch the news early in the day. I think my liver transplant, in 2008, really shifted me, in a way. It changed the temperature of my observations in the world. I think that it’s really benefited my writing, because as I approach life living hour by hour, I notice things. I live out in the country, so I have time and atmosphere to hear myself think. Particularly with the time I started writing the album, right at the end of March . I’m kind of in my own element, I’m watching, carefully and selectively, what’s happening in the world, but I’m also in an environment where my heart and soul could get quiet. I love what happens when those two things occur. It allows me to then go to that other place and to find the message.
A lot of times when you start to write a song, you think you know what you’re going to say. [Laughs] And the song has another idea altogether! It might be pulling things out of your subconscious you might have been working on for months — or years! It could be a thought I jotted down in my journal, or some phrase that I had been playing with. I think, for several of the songs, I was doing these online performances and it could just be the look in some peoples’ eyes as I sang a song. Or some comment someone would leave. Someone once said, “I wasn’t going to tune in, but you look hopeful.” I thought, “Wow, what a responsibility.” I try to carry that responsibility and be accountable for not making things… harder than the world.
Lead photo: Courtesy of Reggie Harris
Inset photo: Anthony Salamone