I first saw Bernice Johnson Reagon (that's her on the right playing the large gourd) on the stage of the auditorium at Howard University. The event was billed as the First Annual Howard University Blues Festival. Sadly, the first turned out also to be the last. But for two nights, "the Hilltop" was the place to be as we welcomed to the stage Muddy Waters, J. B. Hutto, Howling Wolf and so many others, including B.B. King, who noted with tears coming to his eyes that this was the first time he had ever been invited to perform at a black university. The festival featured some local talent as well, and that's how Bernice came to be on the stage. She was already well known in folk music and Civil Rights Movement circles, as she had been a centerpiece of the Freedom Singers. If you've ever seen that widely circulated photograph from the Newport Folk Festival that shows Dylan, Baez and others all holding hands and singing together, that's Bernice holding one of Dylan's hands, and that's the rest of the Freedom Singers at her side.
The Howard Festival was more than a decade later, and Bernice was continuing her explorations of the music. The photo at the top of today's blog was taken just about six years after that and records the earliest version of what was to become one of Bernice's crowning achievements, SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK. The group had just released its first LP, on Flying Fish Records (and yes, you can get that music on CD now). That first album is memorable not only for its stunning singing, but also for the fact that the group had not yet gone entirely accapella. There are a couple of tunes with piano and violin, the breath-taking "Hey Mann" for one.
One of the great things about life in DC for decades was the annual Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life. The year of this photo, the Smithsonian, where Bernice was to work for many years, invited SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK to join the other artists and to serve as strolling performers. I had been walking away from a festival event when I heard the haunting strains of this amazing quartet drifting in behind me. I turned around just in time to get this shot. That day and every day of the festival, hundreds of visitors were, as I was, stopped in their tracks by this beautiful music. Like me, too, they would then fall in behind the growing procession that trailed in Sweet Honey's wake. It was an instant parade of celebration and creation.
SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK has continued performing and recording for decades since, undergoing numerous changes in the line-up, surviving even the retirement of Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Here they are at the moment of their genesis.