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Reggie Harris: Ready to Go
by George Graham
(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/30/2018)
Retro music seems to be on the rise, especially with styles from the 1960s and 1970s, including the revival of British Invasion pop, Motown soul and psychedelia. Less ubiquitous but still making its presence known is a revival of Sixties style folk. The current political climate with growing protest movements has helped to give contemporary folksingers new material. Some are long-time veteran artists such as John McCutcheon, whom we featured recently on this series, and there are some younger performers emerging such as Willie Watson. As was the case in the 1960s, African American performers in the folk style are rather few and far between. In the past we had Odetta, and Richie Havens, in recent decades Vance Gilbert and Rhiannon Giddens. This week, we have a new recording by a veteran African American folk artist who after a 40-plus year career has just released his first solo album. He is Reggie Harris, and new recording is called Ready to Go.
For decades, Philadelphia-native Reggie Harris was half of the duo Kim and Reggie Harris, who toured the folk festival widely and featured songs that grew out of the African American experience such as the Underground Railroad and the freedom songs. They frequently performed in educational settings from elementary schools to colleges, as well as on the coffeehouse circuit. Kim Harris after achieving her Ph.D. is now on a university faculty and not able to tour much. So Reggie Harris has continued on, and like the duo does much of his performing in educational settings.
Back in 2008, Reggie Harris faced a serious illness and needed a liver transplant to survive. His experience waiting and wondering whether a liver match could be found before it was too late, inspired him in the making of this album, to celebrate his life. So though the album is full of classic-style folk protest songs, there is always positive energy in the lyrics, and especially in the music and performance which are melodic and upbeat.
Harris includes several original songs, some inspired by events of the day, including the consequences of the 2016 election, and the subsequent re-emergence of hatred and bigotry, and the deaths of children by guns. He also includes a couple of traditional tunes, sometimes giving them the texture of a spiritual, and he revives songs from two of the 1960s folk icons, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. He is joined by a group that serves up the songs in a style than runs from folky to jazzy, and there are a couple of a cappella pieces done spiritual style. Overall, it’s an album that considers weighty issues but always sounds positive.
The album opens with its title track Ready to Go which was brought on by the results of the 2016 election and Harris thinking to himself “What can I do about this?” as he writes in his notes. He then quotes Pete Seeger as telling him “Reggie, if you can get people singing you can remind them how special and powerful they can be.” With its fiddle, the track can almost take on a country sound. <<>>
The first of the traditional tunes is an a cappella medley of Sheep, Sheep and Little David based on a spiritual from the Georgia Seas Islands. Like the much of the rest of the album, the sound is joyous. <<>>
With a more poignant sound is Love Guides the Wounded Heart, which was inspired by President Obama’s visit to the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School gun massacre, and how nothing has changed with gun laws in the five years since due to the lobbying and campaign contributions. <<>>
Harris’ performances, including those he did with Kim Harris, have been strong on African American history. His new album includes a piece called Harlem Renaissance, and cites some of the influential figures who came out of the movement. The song was inspired by preparation for a residency program Harris did at Troy Prep Charter School. <<>>
Another interesting piece of history comes from an unexpected source. The tune is called Hunt the Whale and it was inspired by an account of the ill-fated whaling ship, the Essex, which was in turn the inspiration for Moby Dick. The Essex had seven black sailors on its crew, and it was said that they led songs on the ship, with the sea shanties drawing on black spirituals. <<>>
The first of the 1960s covers is Phil Ochs’ Another Age which came out of the Vietnam War, and its parallel to ongoing wars. Harris and company serve it up in an energetic arrangement. <<>>
Harris’ time wondering whether he would have a liver transplant that would save his life, was the inspiration for the song 3:16 AM, reflecting on his circumstance. <<>>
The album ends with Harris’ reworking of Bob Dylan’s anthem The Times They Are a Changin’.” Harris and his band do some tweaks to the chord structure, and he adds a new verse at the end. <<>>
Reggie Harris’ new release Ready to Go, his first solo album under his own name after a 40-year plus career in music performance with Kim Harris, is a first rate 21st century folk-singer record. He sings some topical and protest songs, but in the best folkie tradition, they are songs that can outlive the current circumstances, and he also brings in some history, in keeping with his educational role – he’s a lecturer and performer for the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education program. But he puts those songs in a musically positive and appealing context, with tasteful production by a group including bassist Chico Huff, drummer Matt Scarano, guitarist Pat Wictor, who is also a folksinger in his own right, and co-production by another folky, Greg Greenway. The vocal performance is up-front with the lyrics delivered clearly and in keeping with the positive texture of the album.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The mix well-handled, there is good clarity and warmth on the acoustic instrumentation, and the vocals are unfettered by needless effects. But like so many albums these days, the misguided push to make it all artificially loud through volume compression undermined the performance and its dynamics.
There are not a lot of emerging African American folksingers on the scene these days. Reggie Harris comes from a previous generation, but his new album Ready to Go is very much relevant these days, and the album is just plain appealing.
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