By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
On Saturday, Feb. 3, the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center will kick off Black History Month with lessons about the Underground Railroad.
Folk duo Reggie Harris and his wife Kim Harris will perform Sing to Freedom: Music and Stories of the Underground Railroad, which illustrate how song was used to deal with slavery, and how it helped people escape.
“[The Underground Railroad] is probably the first civil rights movement in America,” said Reggie Harris, internationally known singer, songwriter and teaching artist. “Spirituals were a powerful way to organize and for people to get their community together, in addition to expressing their longing for freedom.”
The show is a multimedia exploration of slavery and the quest for freedom that incorporates songs, stories and audience participation with a film segment that highlights important aspects of slavery in this country.
Harris loves the performance because it shows that the Underground Railroad was run by people of different colors and races and religious backgrounds who recognized the evils of slavery and were willing to band together in various ways to take on the issue.”
“I think it’s a powerful thing to perform during this nation’s time and division,” he added.
Performances, which have been held all over the country including Alaska and also in Italy and Africa, date back to 1982.
“When we first started doing the show all we knew were some songs we used, the spirituals,” he said. He credits historian Dr. Charles Blockson “who really helped us to get on our way, and plug this into historical sites around the country” for helping to provide valuable information on the Underground Railroad.
Blockson is a prominent Philadelphia-based African American historian, scholar and author. Harris said he learned the intricacy of slavery.
“The myth of the Underground Railroad is that Quakers were the ones who came up with idea and ran it,” he said. “While they were part of it, it was really run by the free African American community. They were freeing their people, their relatives, their friends.
“But the complexity of how people managed to pull it off,” he said. “Slavery was legal and for the people participating in the Underground Railroad were technically breaking the law. I’ve learned a lot about the American spirit of standing up for peace and justice and . . . about the nation’s inability to deal with the fact that slavery was such a commercial boom for America’s growth.”
Growing up Harriet Tubman was the only name Harris knew about the Underground Railroad, he said.
“There are so many other phenomenal characters – Frederick Douglass, William Still – who were petitioning the America government,” he said. “Also, I’ve come to find out my family’s history of being slaves in Virginia. They didn’t escape through the railroad though.”
Harris, who is considered a folk music artist, said the genre is often not understood.
“People think it’s just people with guitars, but folk music is any music produced by people in ways that are not for commercial use,” he said. “Music that speaks to the lives of people doing it. It benefits the community or they’re chronicling what their lives are like.”
This show’s performance will show influences of the duos upbringing.
“I grew up in a black Baptist church where we sang spirituals, hymns, but I went to school and learned about other music, and I grew up listening to R&B and rock music,” he said. “So the folk music we produce has a lot of old school stuff in it, spirituals and songs from the 1700s and 1800s, but it’s influenced by the fact that I’m a contemporary person.”
For tickets, visit www.alysstephens.org/events/sing-to-freedom/