Wikipedia: “Sweet Honey in the Rock is an all-woman, African-American a cappella ensemble. They are an American Grammy Award-winning (and many times nominated) troupe who express their history as African-American women through song, dance, and sign language.”
Wikipedia is a little out-of date because it goes on to say, “Originally a four-person ensemble, the group have expanded to five-part harmonies, with a sixth member acting as a sign-language interpreter. Although the members have changed over three decades, the group continues to sing and perform worldwide.”
Actually they are currently back to being a four-person ensemble, plus sign-language interpreter and (at least for this tour) a guy who plays acoustic and electric bass. Two of the women – Louise Robinson and Carol Lynn Maillard – are original members. Since 1973!
While not necessarily a long-time follower of the group, I knew and liked their style. So when we heard they were coming to Sanders Theatre – a Harvard University property dating back to 1875 – we decided to check them out. Sanders is an intimate theater (1100 or so seats) renowned for its acoustics. We’ve previously seen Joan Armatrading, Leo Kottke (upcoming post), and Herbie Hancock with Wayne Shorter there.
Sweet Honey’s repertoire consists of spirituals, blues, folk, gospel, jazz, popular and world music. Their name comes from Psalm 81:16: “But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” They have addressed topics including motherhood, spirituality, freedom, civil rights, domestic violence, immigration issues, and racism.
If that all sounds kind of heavy for a night on the town, yes it sometimes is. In addition to entertaining you, they have a message they want to convey. Like the best art, you will sometimes feel uncomfortable. However, they are not preachy per se but instead use music as a way to tell a story, to encourage singing along, and sometimes just to get you to shake your ass.
Here’s “Midnight Special,” a song of prisoners in the South waiting for a train that maybe never comes. (If this link doesn’t work in your country, see comments section for another version from a helpful follower):
This group may be the only one I’ve seen with an explicit mission statement on their web site. Sometimes they get political but not overtly as in “you should vote for this or that person.” But certainly with some trenchant observations about “events of recent months,” clearly referring to the ongoing debacle we refer to as a “presidential race” here in the States.
Here’s “Motherless Child,” a tune of being separated from one’s parents during slavery but which also has universal appeal:
Will you be sometimes challenged? Sure. Sometimes enlightened? Absolutely. Sometimes moved? Definitely. But you can take it on any level you want. So, pure entertainment. Or entertainment that leaves you with something to think about after you leave the theater:
Here’s Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”:
In 2015, the group embarked on four U.S. Embassy tours with performances and community outreach in Ethiopia, Peru, Jamaica and Switzerland. They have appeared 32 times at Carnegie Hall and are a favorite of Barack and Michelle Obama, having performed for them by request at the White House.
I’ll leave the last word to Sweet Honey: “We are very forward thinking as an organization, constantly re-evaluating how we can express concepts to uplift and create change through our music and concerts.”