Music is a fuel for every social revolution, never more so than in the African American struggles out of slavery and into a semblance of equality in our modern culture. In pre-Civil War years, traditional Black gospel spirituals sometimes served dual purposes – to assert hope for a better life and to convey coded directions and advice to runaway slaves heading north on the Underground Railroad, a network of sympathizers providing food, shelter and aid. More than a century later, many of these same songs became anthems of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, their messages of faith and determination stoking countless freedom marches and rallies.
A 1982 request to perform at several Philadelphia school assemblies first led the married folksinging duo of Kim and Reggie Harris to explore the rich lore of Underground Railroad stories and songs and their subsequent reuse in more modern contexts. For the last 25 years, about half of the Harrises’ 200 yearly performances across the country have been historically-oriented workshops for students, educators and parents. The Harrises’ first album, Music and the Underground Railroad (1984, out of print), grew from their Underground Railroad studies, as did their 1997 Appleseed debut, Steal Away: Songs of the Underground Railroad, which was proclaimed as “a stunning recording” by Sing Out! magazine and has been embraced as a valuable teaching tool by Underground Railroad and Black history museums, freedom centers, and school systems, particularly during Black History Month (February) and in the days surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in mid-January.
On their new Get On Board! CD, Kim (vocals) and Reggie (vocals, guitar) present some of the lesser-known Underground Railroad songs they’ve uncovered since Steal Away was recorded, such as “Done with Driver’s Dribbin’” and “Row de Boat,” as well as reviving several standards from their past recordings (“Trampin’,” “Get On Board”). “We’re excited about keeping these songs alive,” says Kim. “When the time comes for political action, the younger generations will take these same songs and once again mobilize and remake the tradition to apply to their own causes for freedom and social action.”
The Harrises’ musical guests on Get On Board! span ages and genres. “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep,” a traditional song recently revived on Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions CD, features a near-acappella arrangement and vocal by Bernice Johnson Reagon, the renowned musician, teacher, activist and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Actor Danny Glover supplies readings from the pen of Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass over the Rev. Robert B. Jones’ rendition of the gospel-blues “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” Contemporary folk-blues performer Guy Davis, son of African American actor-activists Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee, adds slide guitar, harmonica and a vocal to the medley of “Rise Up Children and Follow/Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Matt and Marshall Jones, two members of the SNCC Freedom Singers group of the ’60s (which had previously included Bernice Johnson Reagon), are primary vocalists on “Old Tar River,” a traditional song used to signal a pending escape to freedom. Fourteen-year-old Texas-based rapper Jonathan “Baby Jay” Gutierrez, representing a younger generation, trades rap verses with Reggie on “Row de Boat,” a synthesis of slave song “Joann and Rhody” and the familiar “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Additional voices and instrumentation are provided elsewhere by acclaimed folk duo Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, the CD’s producers; longtime Harris associates Magpie (Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino); slide guitarist/solo artist Pat Wictor, and others.
Mixed in with the traditional material on Get On Board! are newer compositions “Ballad of the Underground Railroad,” co-written by Black history scholar and Harris friend and mentor Charles L. Blockson, Cathy Fink’s spirited “One Little Step Towards Freedom,” and Roberta Slavitt’s aching “Freedom is a Constant Struggle.” There’s also a newly recorded Civil Rights-era update of a traditional song, “If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus,” available for free download from the Harrises’ website, www.kimandreggie.com. The track features musician-activist Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), daughter Bethany Yarrow and her performance partner Rufus Cappadocia, as well as the Harrrises. The website will present an interview with guest musicians and an activity plan related to the song for parents and teachers to utilize. Lesson plans for other Get On Board! songs will subsequently be posted.
With so many of the CD’s guests having strong idealistic and historical connections to Get On Board’s! timeless themes of music as a tool of freedom, it’s no wonder the results are so uplifting. Prominent among the CD’s glories is the use of voices – Kim’s radiant mezzo-soprano and Reggie’s high baritone are displayed in innumerable harmonic combinations, swooping around each other, slipping in and out of unison, joyfully welcoming the additional vocal textures of their guests.
The vibrant arrangements and the fascinating historical background of the songs, described in the CD’s informative liner notes, make Get On Board! an accessible and uplifting documentary of music’s role in our country’s past, present and future.
Reviews"Slave songs and other musical artifacts of early African America would certainly not disappear without the caretaking of Kim and Reggie Harris. It's doubtful, though, that anyone would bring them so thoroughly to life. This husband-and-wife team performs these songs, though born from injustice, with a buoyant spirit that opens them to all listeners. Their secret is in the smiles -- you can hear them in the shape of the words -- that reflect their faith in the triumph of righteousness. Some tracks are a cappella, some feature guitars or banjos or, further back, djembes. Following the timeless spirituals, modern recollections of the Underground railroad, and jazzy touches, the album peaks on the penultimate track, 'Row de Boat,' am ambitious mix of melody and rap declamation. It sounds a bit hokey on paper, but on disc, the exuberance and festivity are impossible to resist." - Robert L. Doerschuk, No Depression