Bernice Johnson Reagon


2006 Bio Statement

(14k pdf available)

For more than 40 years, Bernice Johnson Reagon has been a major cultural voice for freedom and justice; singing, teaching—speaking out against racism and organized inequities of all kinds. An African American woman’s voice, a child of Southwest Georgia, born in the struggle against racism in America during the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. Reagon’s life and work support the concept of community based culture with an enlarged capacity for mutual respect: for self, for those who move among us who seem to be different than us, respect and care for our home, the environment, including the planet that sustains life as we know it.

Perhaps no individual today better illustrates the transformative power and instruction of traditional African American music and cultural history than Bernice Johnson Reagon, who has excelled equally in the realms of scholarship, composition, and performance. She is Professor Emerita of History at American University, Curator Emerita at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and served as the 2002-2004 Cosby Chair of Fine Arts at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. Two of her major works are seminal to the study of this tradition: Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions and Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery. Reagon served as principal scholar, conceptual producer, and host for the Peabody Award winning Wade in the Water, the 26-show series produced by National Public Radio and Smithsonian Institution (premier broadcast 1984). She also served as curator of the traveling exhibit and compiled the 4CD box devoted to this sacred music tradition. After serving as the score composer for the four-film series. produced by WGBH TV, Africans in America (broadcast in a PBS mini-series in 1998, also received a Peabody Award), Reagon produced the related series of audio recordings released by Rykodisc/GBH Records. From 2002 to 2004 Bernice Johnson Reagon held the Cosby Chair Professor of Fine Arts at Spelman College, where she created the live performance production Lord! I Got A Right To The Tree Of Life! A Tribute to Early African American Sacred Song. While at Spelman, Reagon initiated an archival collection project focused on the life and work of Willis Laurence James, an African American 20th-century musician, folklorist, composer, and choral director.

In 1973 while serving as Vocal Director of the DC Black Repertory Company, Reagon founded the internationally acclaimed African American woman a cappella ensemble, Sweet Honey In The Rock. For 30 years she was artistic director, performer, songwriter, and producer of many of the group’s recordings, retiring in early 2004. Among the recordings she produced are: Sacred Ground, Selections: Sweet Honey In The Rock, 1976–1988; Still the Same Me, and Alive in Australia, Sweet Honey In The Rock (Australian release only).

Reagon’s publications include: We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey In The Rock, Still on the Journey; We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African-American Gospel Composers; and If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition. She has also written numerous articles on African American culture and history. She compiled and wrote the booklet for the two-CD collection Voices of the Civil Rights: Black American Freedom Songs 1960–1965 (Smithsonian Folkways Records).

Dr. Reagon became active in the Civil Rights Movement while a college student at Albany State College in Albany, Georgia (from which she was expelled after participating in a demonstration for which she and others were jailed). She was a member of the original SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers formed in 1962 by SNCC field secretary Cordell H. Reagon, and in 1966, a founding member of the Atlanta-based Harambee Singers.

Dr. Reagon has served as music consultant, composer, and performer for several film and video projects, including the award-winning Eyes on the Prize, the Emmy-winning We Shall Overcome, and the feature film Beloved. She received the Isadora Duncan award for the score for the original ballet, Rock, created by Alonso King, founder and artistic director of the San Francisco based contemporary ballet company, LINES (1996). In 2003, she created the music and libretto for the Robert Wilson production, The Temptation of St. Anthony, which premiered in Germany and was also performed in Italy, Spain, England, and New York. In this work, Reagon’s music drew upon her intimate and long term study and performance of African American music spanning 19th and 20th century genres. Nov/Dec 2005, Temptation completed a run at the Paris Opera House de Garnier (the first African American cast to play in the house since the 19th century) to sell-out audiences. The libretto for the production was inspired and adapted from a translation of the 19th century Gustav Flaubert novel of the same title. Her pioneering work as a scholar, teacher, and artist has been recognized with the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities (2003), the Leeway National Award for Women in the Arts (2000), the Presidential Medal for contribution to public understanding of the Humanities (1995), and the MacArthur Fellowship (1989).

Bernice Johnson Reagon is available for lecture presentations or workshops. For information about scheduling an engagement, please visit the Jodi Solomon Speakers Bureau.

Songtalk Publishing Organized 1978

Management of the Music and Works of Bernice Johnson Reagon

Music licensing: contact Kathy Ostien

Booking: Jodi F. Solomon Speakers Bureau

Music Commissions and other information: e-mail or write to: Songtalk Publishing, PO Box 56482, Washington, DC 20040-6482