Reggie Harris on Finding Solid Ground in a Storm of Injustice

In a performance of “Wade in the Water” broadcast on KMCN last year, you can hear Reggie Harris break down the spiritual’s many strata of coded meaning. Between the refrains, strumming like second nature, he explains that it’s a song of faith that also reminded the enslaved people who carried it with them on the Underground Railroad that water was an essential life-sustaining resource, a way of masking scent, and a means of covering tracks.

As a travelling performer and folk educator, Harris has been playing the music of the Underground Railroad since 1982. He’s a teaching artist with the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education program, a fellow for the Council of Independent Colleges lecture program, and for about four decades, he was half of the performance unit Kim and Reggie Harris until the two announced their divorce and the scaling back of their duo gigs in 2016.

Like the folk songs he teaches, Reggie Harris is multi-layered, which has only become more apparent as he’s started making solo records. For his latest, On Solid Ground, he wrote new songs for old-but-evolving struggles–calls for racial justice and better treatment for workers (“My Working Bones” speaks to the meat packing industry, one of the hardest hit and most exploited during the COVID-19 pandemic).

But he also writes buoyant love songs, like the jazzy duet “Maybe It’s Love.” Alongside his tributes to folk stalwarts like Malvina Reynolds and John Prine, he also covers The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” with his own twists. Harris remembers bringing it to his studio collaborators with a hearty laugh. “I just heard it with a little more latin kind of jazzy thing,” he says. “I knew that launching that into a folk music frame, they’d kinda go, ‘What?’ But this is who I am.”

After the release of On Solid Ground, Harris spoke to The All Scene Eye about folk music in the time of coronavirus and lessons he learned from his mentor, Pete Seeger.

A couple years ago, you put out a record called Ready to Go, which I believe was your first solo recording. Is that right?

It was, and it was quite the experience to be working by myself after 40 years of being a duo, but I had a lot of great support with the folks in the studio and friends who came in and brought their A-game with ’em. The CD was really well-received, and I was very pleased with that, but also, it was just a really wonderful opportunity to show this new place that I find myself–you know, years and years of piling up all these experiences, and the writing really went to a new place. Ready to Go opened up a whole new realm for me of people seeing not only my writing, but also, I was the harmony person so much of the time in Kim and Reggie Harris, and a lot of people said, “I didn’t know you could sing like that.” I was like, “Oh. Well, I can.” [laughs]

When did you first start working on the follow-up, On Solid Ground?

Well, it’s funny, in between I did a CD with my friend Greg Greenway; I’m doing a show with him called Deeper Than the Skin, and we went into the same studio and recorded an album for that. So by this time, I’ve got Ready to Go, I’ve got Deeper Than the Skin, and I’ve got this relationship in that studio with Greg and with the engineer Dave Schonauer. We have evolved into this really amazing unit of creativity, which really helped with having to work through such a challenging time with the pandemic. I called up both of them and I said, “I got these 13 songs that I’ve been writing since March.” Greg and I did some pre-production in September, and then we hit the studio. I was wondering whether or not the studio was even open, but as it turned out, they had done some work, and it was a safe place to work.

I was so ready to go back in there. It’s the most relaxed I think I’ve ever been in a studio, and it came at a time when the world was not relaxed. The songs had come out of such a cauldron of challenge, addressing issues that were so intense. I came into the studio with these songs that I just kinda knew what I wanted to do, and I was comfortable enough in that space, even with all the COVID protocols and the weird travel to get there. We settled in and we just kinda rolled, finding the core of each song and then bringing in people.

I would call up a friend like [saxophone player] Ken Ulansey who lived in Philly, and I’d say, “We’re making this CD,” and he said, “I’m not even playing that much,” but he came in and played this amazing sax part. The rhythm section I’d worked on with both of those CDs, so Chico Huff and Matt Scarano, they almost play my music like they’re there when I write it. We found this amazing groove to bring the best out in each of these songs, and at the end of the day, I feel like they are such an amazing representation of this person who has put in all these years. The clarity of my message and the clarity of my music is a wonderful thing to experience in this time when there’s not a lot of clarity.

In addition to being a musician, you’re also a music educator. This last year has been a difficult time to be in education, but it’s also been an increased time of attention on race in culture and things that are so central to what you teach. What has this past year been like for you through that lens?

Well, you know, I took my three weeks after my last date–in Buffalo, I think it was. I was supposed to do another show at the School for the Deaf in Buffalo, and it came in, they said “We found COVID cases, so we’re gonna shut the school down.” I got in the car and I drove home, and then it’s three weeks watching the world unravel. [laughs] At the end of those three weeks of watching TV, listening to things online, talking to friends, watching people freak out in my town and around the world, I just kind of said, “You know, this feels like my time. I certainly have a message for this time.” A lot of it comes from the stuff that I do in education, of showing people through music and also through story things that we’ve been through before and connections–ways that people in the Underground Railroad worked across racial lines and became this rainbow coalition for justice and freedom. The civil rights movement, same thing. 

These are things I taught to students and to audiences about all the time, and now I was having a different lens looking at the protests in the streets and the statues coming down. I had a frame for it, and as it happened, I also had the ability to translate that into songs. I’m sitting on the couch, and I sort of dialed up C. T. Vivian challenging Jim Clark in Selma in 1965, and I’m watching these pregnant mothers and people in Portland facing the cops, putting their lives on the line for these Black protesters, and I said, “This is a different day. Yes, we are back here, but I see some change.” So I’m sitting, and all of a sudden this song pops out, “Selma, Alabama, 1965, a group of people standing in the rain.” This rhythm comes to me, and suddenly I’ve got this chorus, “We will never go back.” You know, it’s happened day after day. 

The other thing is, I’m on the road for 250 days a year, so I usually have to struggle to find time to write, and now I had all the time in the world. If I have an idea, it’s like, “I’m not going anywhere.” The songs just rose up, and as I was having collaborations with other artists online, these song circles on Zoom or YouTube, I got other inspirations. I saw the protests, and I remembered a Malvina Reynolds song that I popped into a song circle that my friend Aileen Vance came up with, a tribute to Malvina Reynolds–a tribute to John Prine, and I thought, “What do I know of John Prine?” and I thought, oh, “Hello In There.” It seemed like there was this thread that was going, and before I knew it, between March and the end of August, I had 13 songs, and they all were connected to each other. I kept saying, “I’m ready to go,” but I said, “I already did that song.” [laughs]

It was an evolution for me because as an African American looking at all of this as–you know, folk music is just astonishingly white, and many of the schools that I play are in areas where there just aren’t a lot of people of color, so in many ways, I started noticing by email or by phone, I became everybody’s next best call. I was having to balance being what I am in public with also being that in private, and it wasn’t always easy to negotiate because I was having personal reactions to watching George Floyd, watching Breonna Taylor and all of these things happen. Watching these hate groups marching in the street as if they had some place in an America that we say is about freedom and justice. The death of C. T. Vivian and John Lewis. I realized this isn’t just stuff that I’m observing and commenting on. This is also impact on me as an artist and as a person. That made the intensity of writing these songs and finding a deeper core–because you know, things are always about something else.

A lot of the audience that are hearing my songs, they don’t know a lot of this stuff. This was new for millions of Americans, and as I’m thinking about writing and performing songs that will introduce them to these really difficult themes, I’m also trying to give them the idea, the inspiration, that they can make a difference in this. And I’m also seeing groups of young people standing up and saying, “Hey, we got this. We’re running with this.” It’s an interesting mix of things swirling around, and it was reflected when we came into the studio. The musicians all reacted to the lyrics, and I think it made their performances even more intensely clear about how they wanted to address this material.

When we hear about another case of police brutality or something like that, there’s an instinct a lot of people have to say, “This is so horrifying because in America, this isn’t who we are. We’re better than this.” Your album opens very pointedly with the first track saying, “It is who we are, actually.” Tell me about writing that song, and what that means to you, to say “It’s Who We Are.”

[laughs] You know, doing so much in education and history, I’ve been getting that for years and years and years. I remember when Obama was leaving office, and he kind of touched on that. I mean, he had many times, but he touched on that in saying, you know, the idea of American exceptionalism is we’re the light on the hill and all of that. And I remember the backlash that came at him, that “You have no right to demand that we be better than we are,” and I thought, “Wow, that’s very interesting.” I actually started that song right about then, and that was one of those songs that I put in my notebook and I kept trying to get some clarity on.

About a year ago, before all the pandemic stuff started, I’d managed to write out some verses on that, actually about 14. [laughs] But it was all angry, just pointing my finger in the face of such a nation, saying, “No, this is who we are. Look at the history.” I couldn’t write that song. I couldn’t get past that because that’s not who I am, you know? I never like to write from a standpoint of just saying what’s negative. I’m always looking for that little window of hope. It was in sitting in my living room and watching those pregnant mothers in Portland and those people of different races in Louisville, and all of these young, diverse faces–watching the LGBTQ people come out. I saw their signs, I heard their language, and suddenly, I said, “Oh, yeah. We can change.” 

It’s not that I didn’t believe that before, but now I had new evidence of it, and as soon as I wrote that, the rest of the song opened up. And I said to myself, you know, “I’m gonna put this on the first cut? [laughs] It may shut down the album!” But I had a really good talk with Greg, my co-producer, and with Dave, and it also coincided with the photos that I shot for the front of the album. This was not a CD that was joyful and celebratory. There is joy in there, but I wanted to say, “Okay, folks, now you’ve seen it. We’ve seen the cell phone videos. We’ve all watched this stuff,” and that whole sequence with C. T. Vivian, saying “We are willing to be beaten for justice.”

Now I saw people in the streets who were willing to be beaten for justice. And a lot of them didn’t know [laughs] that the beating was coming, but they went out there anyway. It made me hopeful in a different way, so that’s why, in the video that I made, I wanted to put some faces out there that people wouldn’t normally see. It’s important in this time for white people to understand that without them embracing the change, it will not happen. And I heard a language shift in a lot of the folks on my Facebook page, on Twitter, folks writing to me on the online concerts, owning this. They weren’t saying “I’m shocked,” or “I don’t believe we’re here.” They were saying, “No, I see that we’re part of this, and we’re gonna do something about this,” so yeah, I just thought, “Here we go.”

One of my favorite lines, when I had one of those great writing days, I said “You can blame the politicians / you can blame your neighbors too / you can blame the founding fathers / for what their mothers didn’t do.” That’s my sense of humor, and it’s a little snarky, but it’s also true. We’ve been at this for over 300 years, and it’s time we stepped up and acknowledged the truth of who we are. As with my connection to my white cousins in the Wickham family, I’ve said to them, “This is our history, but we don’t have to be defined by it, and that’s our choice.”

You mentioned you couldn’t use Ready to Go again. You did end up calling this record On Solid Ground. Can you tell me about what that means to you?

That was the first song I wrote. I wrote that right at the end of March, watching and feeling the impact of the world unravelling. I saw people freaking out, and I had a little freakout myself, but in all of that, sitting in my room in my house, I said, “Where am I gonna find comfort in this time?” I do a lot of stuff on spirituals, and I love the spirituals. They come out of that time of slavery, out of a time of devastation, but they’re not just sorrow songs, as Frederick Douglass called them. They are songs that help people to acknowledge that the devastation of their situation was, because of their history of resilience, temporary, and that they could find their way through it. I think the first online song that I sang was “Wade in the Water,” and that’s a song I go to a lot. I started looking at the other spirituals, and I said, “What’s the message I want to give to people in this time?” And so I think the line came, “We will not rest until the storm is over,” and we’re certainly in the storm, but we’ll work together to find solid ground.

That song kinda rolled out of me, and I had an opportunity to sing it for some online groups–this one group I’ve done a lot of stuff for, The Daily Antidote from Washington Revels–and people latched onto that song and started singing it. Other musicians started passing it around, and that was a song that opened the floodgates for me, for writing. My message basically is the same message that song has been transmitting for thousands of years, but particularly from the African-American struggle. Our community has stayed resilient and stayed together because we have this music that says, “We’re not gonna quit. We’re gonna be here.” The last verse, I’m struggling to find it, and I said, “You know, all this violence that’s coming up, all these hate groups, Proud Boys, the Klan, these Nazis traveling in the streets, all this violence against Asian Americans–we can be stronger than this, but we can’t do it alone.”

I thought, “This is the overall message that I want to share,” you know? I want to point out some things that are hard, I want to point out the difficulties that we’re struggling, but I really want to address the resilience. A lot of my white audience, they’re more distant from the trauma that their ancestors came through, but as Maya Angelou once said, we have all been bought and sold. We all have trauma and difficulty in our past, our ancestry. We gotta make contact with that and realize that there’s power in community, so that became the title.

Musically, that track is so distinct because it’s just you singing a cappella with claps, tambourine, rhythm elements–what is it like cutting a song like that in the studio?

On past CDs, I’ve done a lot of overtracking, and I did sneak Greg Greenway on there for one part. [laughs] ‘Cause he would not be denied. He said, “I gotta get me some of that.” But yeah, I have the Reggie choir that often comes in. I grew up in a time of gospel quartets and all those, you know, The Soul Stirrers and the Five Blind Boys, so that’s where I was headed with that, just rich voices singing together. I always have so much fun spontaneously finding those little harmony parts.

I had occasion to do an a cappella track on a CD that I did with Kim years ago, Get On Board. We called up Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and we did exactly that. She came into the studio and she said, “How do you think we should do this?” And I’m like, “Really?” [laughs] “I’m gonna tell Bernice Johnson Reagon how to sing this damn song?” My mother didn’t raise stupid children, so I said, “Uh, sister Bernice, how would you suggest we do it?” And without missing a beat, she said, “Okay, here’s what we do.” [laughs] She said, “We’re gonna create church here. We’re gonna just layer it up and see what we get.” So that’s kinda what I did–I just got in front of the microphone, I sang the lead, and then I said, “Okay, run another one.”

I grew up in a community where, in my church on particular Sundays, they would sit and sing for two hours, and it was all a cappella. I still hear those voices, and I’m still tied into them, so any time I get an opportunity to sing a cappella and try to recapture the richness of that tradition, I’m just right there.

The last song on this record is one that has been in your repertoire for some time. You released “High Over the Hudson” back in 2014 as a Kim and Reggie Harris track. When did you first write that song, and how did it find its way back for this release?

I started writing that song the day after Pete died. I got a text the night that he was in the hospital; we were on the road and we weren’t far from New York, but folks were saying they were gathering around his bedside, and a bunch of friends were there. We wanted to get into New York and join them, but when I got the text, it was, like, 8:00 at night, and we weren’t gonna make it. We called up a friend and said, “Can we come and stay with you?” She lived in New Jersey, and we thought, “Well, if he lasts the night, we’ll go in tomorrow,” and as it happened, by the time we got to her house, he had died. 

So, woke up in the morning and was just kinda wondering what we could do, and she said, “Why don’t you come into my class?” She’s a second grade teacher. We had often visited her school, and she said, “The kids would love to hear stories about Pete and sing some songs.” So we went into a class and started to talk, and kids started asking questions. We were singing songs and telling stories, and one little girl said, “Where did Mr. Seeger live?” and I said, “Oh, he lived very close to the river he loved so much, the Hudson.” And she said, “Hudson river–it’s an estuary. It flows both ways.” And I’m like, “Oh my god, I didn’t know that in second grade.” [laughs] But I thought, “This was the legacy of Pete Seeger.” He helped to make environmental education and that love of the river so present for so many people, and lift up our care for the Earth.

 One little boy said, “What was his house like?” “Well, it was a cabin he built, and it sat–it sat high over the Hudson.” And as soon as I said that, I said to my friend the teacher, “Can you give me a piece of paper?” Because it was like, “There’s a song there.” If you look at the back of the album, there’s a letter from Pete, and then there’s a little piece of paper that was the first lines that I wrote for the song. I saw Pete sailing up the Hudson river one last time, and that was the visual that sort of connected me to write that song, but we never put it on an album. 

As I thought about releasing this CD, first of all, it just made sense to get it out, but I thought, “Oh, what a wonderful complement to all of these other songs and the work that Pete Seeger had done over the years, the mentor and the friend that he was.” It’s a different kind of song than the others because I’ve come all this way since writing it. The frame of the song is very much in the context of building community and the work that I’m doing now, so it was a perfect ending to the album.

How did the two of you meet?

He came to Philadelphia while I was living there. Kim and I were part of a concert that he was headlining, and I met him backstage, where he was sitting [laughs] kind of in the dark and writing something. I knew he was gonna be there, but I didn’t expect to meet him at that moment, and I was walking backstage and I almost stepped on his banjo. He had laid it on the floor, as he always did. I came around a corner and I almost stepped on the banjo, and I stopped at the last minute, and he looked up and he said, “Who are you?” [laughs] And I was gonna say, “I’m the guy who just almost stepped on your banjo!” But I said, “I’m Reggie Harris,” and he said, “Oh, I’m Pete Seeger.” And I’m like, “I know who you are.” [laughs]

But he was always that, you know? He never saw himself as a special one. Not long after that, the phone rang, and it was him, and he said, “I’m doin’ this concert in New York City,” and I was wondering if you and Kim could come and join.” And I was like, “Really?” [laughs] He did that a number of times. In 2005, he and Toshi asked if we could come to Fort Worth, Texas for a general assembly. He was doing a concert down there, and he wanted to bring along some younger people. He was all about that, so I have, in my own life, embraced that as an opportunity, if there’s a younger artist or young people, and I credit him with that. 

You talk so much about Pete Seeger as a teacher–can you tell me about what he meant to you as a writer and what you learned from him as a folk singer?

I tell you, he was probably the best example for all of us who had the opportunity to be close to him. Pete never launched into anything as if he would try to tell you something–if you could ask him a question, he would tell you a story, but watching him live and work was just phenomenal. He had five ideas every minute, and he was always interested in getting those ideas to other people. He would always say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about doing this, creating an opportunity for kids to do this or do that.” He’d be telling you this, and you’d be sitting there going, “Oh, god, Pete’s trying to get me to work on this,” and you realize later he told the same idea to five other people [laughs] and one of us would pick it up.

He was all about connection. He was all about helping people to realize that song was a way to build community, and he was so inclusive. I mean, if you were around him, he was always opening opportunities. Hated people telling him that he had changed their lives, that he, you know, was their icon. “I saw you at 13 and I’ve never been the same.” He would just glaze over, you know? [laughs] He was so not about that, and I just think of all my time with both he and Toshi. They were all about learning. They were curious. They were passionate.

A lot of us were singer/songwriters, and were all interested in people hearing our songs, but any time we did a song that either allowed people to sing or connected them to some ability to make a change, he would always make a notice of that. He might write you a note, or he might come up to you somewhere and say, “I really liked that song. Tell me about that. Tell me why you wrote that.” I wrote a song, “In the Shelter of Each Other,” and he was standing on the side of the stage and came up and played his banjo on the song. After I got off, he asked me to sing it for him again, and he notated it on the spot. You knew he would either do it, or he would pass that song along.

At the time, I was just coming back into the sense of having grown up in a community that shared song as a way of expression, of collective expression. It wasn’t that Pete didn’t like songs that people wrote that were just about specific ideas or whatever, but he didn’t have a lot of time for navel-gazing. [laughs] He would always reward opportunities where you showed you were looking at other people and trying to draw them in, and that’s one of the things that really changed my career. So much of the industry is about “Look at me, look at me,” and Pete was seriously about “Look at us.”

You mentioned early on in our conversation that when you’re seeing what’s going on in the world, these are things that affect you very personally. As somebody who writes topical songs, do you ever feel pigeonholed in the ways that you have of expressing how things affect you personally?

I think that the way people have seen me–largely they see activist, topical songwriter. I’ve written, over the course of my career, a lot of different kinds of songs, and then obviously there are two love songs on this CD, so I personally haven’t felt that in my inner workings as an artist. I try to pay attention to issues, I think because I’m an African American, and because of the way the world sees me. It makes it part of my daily experience of life in a different way than a white artist, or people for whom this is not–I mean, even before I walk out of the house, I’m just aware that there are things I need to be aware of. My interactions with the world are going to be shaped by how others see me, but from the interior, I don’t see myself that way. I mean, it was really fun to write “Come What May” and “Maybe It’s Love” on this CD because this is also part of who I am.

I had a couple of meltdowns last year, just in terms of looking at the impact of what was happening in the world. This is part of what I have to carry through the world and part of what African Americans, whether they’re artists or not, have to deal with. And I feel in some ways that it’s a burden, but in other ways, it’s a blessing because I also have a lot of support in the world. I have a lot of good friends. I have a lot of good organizations that are helping me to look at this, the stuff I do with the Living Legacy Project. I’ve just got some amazing collaborators who are making a difference in the world and who also see what I’m doing. I can call them up on a day it’s really hard and say, “Hey, I just need a few minutes.” Or, “I need a week.” [laughs] And they’ll say, you know, “I think you’re sort of grinding away at things. How about this funny movie?” [laughs] “How about taking some time off?” 

I got a chance to work with some of the SNCC Freedom Singers on a project years ago, and we said to them, “What was the thing you most regret about the stuff that you were doing in Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia?” And they said, literally, “We regret that we didn’t take more time off to balance our lives–take time to go to a ball game or watch a movie or just sit around and have some fun.” Those of us who were talking, we were younger, and I know for a fact that many of us paid attention to that. I tried to incorporate that, both in my life as an artist, but also as a person, that even though it might be harder–because as I see the actions of hate rising in frequency, I have never felt less safe traveling in this nation than I feel right now. But I also know that there are a lot of good hearts and a lot of good people, and I try to celebrate those things as well.

It’s an important part of being a well-rounded person and a well-rounded artist, so I try to make sure that it shows up in what I do. When I’m on stage, I’m not always talking about hard, heavy things. I’m trying to remind people that as human beings, there’s a lot of joy in life. I certainly laugh more than most people I know.

One thing I love about this record is it ends with a beginning. The last thing you say on the album is “Let the songs begin.” What’s next for you on the horizon?

Well, it’s really nice, I also had an opportunity in the pandemic to start writing a memoir, so I’m getting close to finishing that. I’m doing a lot of work with Living Legacy, particularly with young people. We’re making a tremendous outreach to campuses and college students to energize and support their work, and I’m also just looking forward to whatever comes out of this amazing landscape.We will not go back to what we were, and I see all kinds of possibilities for helping to frame and shape this new landscape of performance and new opportunities of conversations with each other, so I’m seeing a lot of joy there. I’m also seeing that my Philadelphia 76ers are gonna make the playoffs. [laughs] 

Mostly, I think that the pandemic and the world in which we now live has great opportunity. Somebody said years ago that when major change is about to happen, you will see a lot of efforts by people who benefit from what was true to keep things in place. I look at all these new restrictive voting laws as the last gasp of the status quo to hold onto what they had, but because of the internet, because of the interconnectedness, because I have fans now, as a result of being online, in Australia and Germany and all these other places–I think that as a world, we have this opportunity to leap off into something new, and I’m very much interested in being part of that.

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