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June 24, 2004

Cincinnati Post

Bernice Johnson Reagon, composer and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, found inspiration in the life and work of Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, for her new choral piece, Liberty or Death Suite. MUSE, Cincinnati Women's Choir, will premiere Liberty or Death Friday and Saturday at Allen Temple A.M.E. Church, Bond Hill. Reagon, a winner of a Presidential Medal, distinguished professor of history at American University and curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, spoke about her work.

What led you to choose Harriet Tubman for your subject?

"My first story as a child growing up in southwest Georgia about the Underground Railroad was a story about Harriet Tubman. At several points in my career I have come to the subject of the Underground Railroad (including Reagon's film score to Roots of Resistance)."

What are some of your favorite texts in "Liberty or Death"?

There's something I call "Harriet's Leaving Song." In her narrative, there are lyrics to the songs she sang as she left the plantation. One of the refrains is, "When that old chariot comes, I'm going to leave you. I'm bound for the Promised Land; I'm going to leave you."When I looked at that lyric, I knew I'd never heard anybody sing it. ... This was a 20-year journey for me - trying to place old tunes that I knew onto the lyrics. The refrain, "Liberty or Death," comes from when Tubman says, "I have reasoned this out in my mind. There was one of two things I had a right to: Liberty or Death."

Where do you find your musical inspiration?

I live in southwest Georgia, so my earliest music is unaccompanied - in church, in school and on the playground. So for this piece in particular, I went to the older part of my repertoire.

Posted by acapnews at June 24, 2004 9:56 PM


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