Selections, 1976-1988

Sweet Honey In The Rock

Flying Fish 667/668

Rounder Records
One Camp Street
Cambridge, MA 02140

Time: Disc One: 66' 03"
Disc Two: 67' 46"

A review written for The Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark O'Donnell

Recently there has been strong popular response to a cappella works by unusual artists like Le Mystere De Voix Bulgares and Zap Mama, as well as to recordings of Gregorian chant and work by medieval composers such as Hildegard Von Bingen. This suggests that the power of the unaccompanied human voice raised in song reaches across cultural and temporal boundaries. It is curious though that the homegrown a cappella work of the Persuasions, the Nylons and the Bobs has had only marginal success in reaching the airwaves and our ears. Whether this is part of that pattern where non-mainstream artists must first find success abroad before achieving any degree of success in this the home country may be a bit uncertain, but the lack of exposure of these very talented artists remains a disturbing fact. Perhaps this pattern will change with the release of a remarkable package by one of North America's premier vocal ensembles, Sweet Honey In The Rock. They have issued a complilation of their best known songs on Selections 1976-1988.

Sweet Honey has been producing seminal work for the past 24 years under the direction of founder Bernice Johnson Reagon. First performing in 1975 at the Folk Festival at the University of Chicago, civil rights activist/history professor/Smithsonian curator Reagon and the (r)evolving cast of Sweet Honey have since played all over the world and have issued a dozen albums comprising melodic a cappella singing accompanied only by an occasional percussion instrumentation or handclapping, and featuring lyrics steeped in social consciousness. Reagon is extremely adventurous in her approach to arrangement. From the call and response of the slave fields to the four part (and more) harmonies of doo wop to the use of vocal percussive methods to what might be termed new age multi-level vocal atmospherics, she builds on her base material to create timeless melodies that stay with you once they are heard.

Most of the material in this collection was written by the prolific Reagon, in addition to her work in "processing" (her word for arranging) these songs. Many of her earliest works arise out of her experiences during the civil rights era. Echo, You Who Believe In Freedom, and Cape Fear River Chant all speak to the issue of combating racism. Joan Little and and I'm Gon' Stand!!, (a song from an unreleased soundtrack for a film on the Wilmington 10) in particular, talk of specific acts of injustice and resistance in the not far distant past in North Carolina. Given the time period of this compilation, it is not surprising that many of the songs draw on parallel experiences faced by the people of South Africa and by women in this country. In Biko and Crying For Freedom in South Africa, Reagon, like Peter Gabriel and Christy Moore, recalls the memory of one of the many martyrs of apartheid. In Fannie Lou Hamer (which tells the story of the leadership of this Mississippi woman in the effort to seat her delegation at the 1964 Democratic convention) and Oughta Be A Woman (co-written with June Jordan), Reagon sketches the lives of two women struggling to survive and prosper. She draws from other eclectic sources with dramatic readings of the near- traditional Wade In The Water and Sitting On Top Of The World (you can almost feel the humidity of a Mississippi summer on that one).

Lest you think that this is a one woman show, the contributions of Ysaye Maria Barnwell who sings the bass parts for the group are nothing short of extraordinary. More Than A Paycheck rocks while delivering a message about the world of the working man and woman. Breaths was one of Barnwell's first efforts and is as beautiful a tune as you are ever likely to hear. She has gone on to contribute many outstanding new songs to the current repertoire of Sweet Honey. This collection represents the tip of the iceberg for her. She is marvelous.

Yes, there is a message embedded in every song by the group, but this should not put you off. You can enter this music at a variety of levels-- it is worth listening to for its sheer melodic inventiveness alone, for example.

I have had the good fortune to hear Sweet Honey twice live (once on their 22nd Anniversary on their home ground in D.C.). It is difficult adequately to express how vibrant and unique (that overused word) their sound is, how much energy they, without benefit of amplification and other manipulative sensory devices, bring to an audience. Until you can see them in person, however, these selections will do quite well.

The Songs

Disk 1 Disk 2
  • Ella's Song
  • Wade In The Water
  • Denko; On Children
  • Echo
  • Joan Little
  • Beatitudes
  • Peace
  • Sitting On Top Of The World
  • More Than A Paycheck
  • Crying For Freedom In South Africa
  • They Are All Falling Around Me
  • Mae Frances
  • I'm Goin' Stand!!
  • Feel Something Drawing Me On
  • In The Upper Room
  • Seven Principles
  • Testimony
  • Oughta Be A Woman
  • Fannie Lou Hamer
  • Meyango
  • Run Mourner Run
  • As Long As I Have Breath In My Body
  • No Images
  • Sometime
  • The Gift Of Love
  • Biko
  • My Way
  • State of Emergency
  • Cape Fear River Chant
  • Rivers Of Babylon
  • Stranger Blues
  • Oh Death
  • Breaths
Edited by Kerry Dexter

Copyright 1997, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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