One of the bleakest chapters in American history was the country’s tradition of slave-holding in the 17th through mid-19th centuries, followed by more than 150 years of striving for racial equality and harmony after the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The struggle is not yet finished, but the realization of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” does grow slowly closer.
Preceded by unsuccessful slave revolts as early as 1712, the Underground Railroad of the mid-1800s offered one of the first tickets to a better future and a more equal status for African Americans. An invisible network of escape plans emerged, frequently transmitted by traditional black gospel spirituals. The songs were used for dual purposes – to assert hope for a better life and to convey coded directions and advice to runaway slaves heading north on the “Underground Railroad,” a series of sympathetic “safe houses” along the way.
The most famous runaway was Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery in Maryland, she escaped in 1849 but returned at least 15 times to lead more than 300 black Americans to relative freedom in the north. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel about the horrors of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sold 700,000 copies within a year. After the Civil War from 1861-65 and the loss of 630,000 lives, slavery was abolished throughout the fractured United States.
While attitudes toward African Americans remain a slowly-healing wound to this day, the inspirational music of the Underground Railroad helps provide a cultural bandage. The songs that led to freedom are still sung from churches to political rallies; they still are used to inspire the oppressed and unite people of all colors with their energy and optimism.
Helping to keep the Underground Railroad Songs alive are Kim and Reggie Harris, a married pair of socially conscious acoustic musicians. The Harrises have been “walking the talk” for over 30 years, performing modern and historical songs that explore societal ills and proffer positive social messages. They have appeared on stages from Italy to Alaska to the Virgin Islands, in classrooms and auditoriums across America, and on 11 albums (the six most recent on Appleseed Recordings) and various compilations. Whether entrancing festival crowds with their own material or dramatizing the Underground Railroad songs for which they are best known for schoolchildren in classroom workshops, the duo carry on the folk tradition of preserving important songs from the past and adding meaningful new compositions that reflect the world around them.The Harrises’ cultural background as African-Americans is a major component of their repertoire. Spirituals and gospel songs are liberally incorporated in their work, and they are well respected in scholastic circles for their presentations on black history for teachers and students alike. Their best known recording, Steal Away: Songs of the Underground Railroad(1998), is a much-used teaching tool during the annual Black History Month, serves as the backbone of their “Music and the Underground Railroad” workshops, and is a staple educational aid in many American historical museums. The CD’s sequel, Get On Board! Underground Railroad & Civil Rights Freedom Songs, Volume 2, was released to enthusiastic response in 2007.