Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon performed at the White House
A Celebration of Music From the Civil Rights Movement
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
…Some of the songs sounded ready to accompany new struggles. Ms. Reagon led the Freedom Singers as a trio, wearing African-tinged choir robes and backed by her daughter Toshi on guitar. The Freedom Singers, who sang for rallies alongside Dr. King, are elderly now, but they tore into “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round” with fierce, jubilant call-and-response. Ms. Reagon paused the music partway through to instruct the audience.
“You have to actually sing this song,” she said. “You can never tell when you might need it.”
The concert was televised on February 11th at 8:00 p.m. ET on public broadcasting stations nationwide as part of WETA Washington, D.C.’s “In Performance at the White House” series. NPR will also produce a one-hour concert special from this event for broadcast nationwide on NPR Member stations throughout the month of February, beginning February 12th (
Michael Arthur’s blog: Just Drawn That Way
Monday, January 28, 2008
Toshi Reagon and her band, Big Lovely, played four shows at Joe’s from Thursday through last night, celebrating her birthday. She does this every year. Last night, the place was filled to overflowing as she brought her mother along to share the stage and had some good friends out in the crowd cheering her on.…
Finally, Toshi herself is a force of nature. She’s a diva, a concerned citizen, a voice in the wilderness, the leader of the pack and I will go anywhere anytime to be a part of the music and energy when she's standing at the center.
Read the full, illustrated post…
The Morning After: Performing Arts in Australia
Monday October 15, 2007
Great festivals always have an Easter Egg-hunt element to them. And I hit the Kinder Surprise jackpot on Saturday night. Me and a few hundred others in a capacity crowd. (From the heckling, I’m guessing Festival Director Kristy Edmunds was there too, surveying her Good Deeds.)
Waiting in the snaking queue outside NGV-International, I hooked up with a trio of punters on the theatrical equivalent of a blind date. They wanted a night out at the Spiegeltent and put a pin in the festival program. “Something different” was the wish. Man, how lucky you can get!
We got Toshi Reagon and her terrific backing band, BIGLovely. Barring early-onset dementia, no-one present will forget the performance. This was capital-P privilege material. A stadium-stardom act in the most intimate of venues...
Music, for me, is all about signal-to-noise. I’m not (just) talking sound quality here. Music is a carrier wave between souls. And Toshi Reagon (daughter of Sweet Honey In The Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon) opened a channel — locked and loaded — as soon as she sang her first bluesy, folksy note. Ever had someone give your shoulders a rub and, instantly, you can focus your eyes? That’s what this voice does.
But how to describe it? ‘True’ seems so inadequate, but it will have to do. True to the note, true to the thought and emotion, true to the self.
Bob Dylan’s 1966 concert revisited
January 18 - 24, 2008 –by Todd Simmons
Grande Finale: Jim Lauderdale and Toshi Reagon singing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with all the musicians at the Bob Dylan tribute concert last Saturday at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden...Toshi Reagon also gave the program a jolt.
photo by Jefferson Siegel
Player Spotlight: Songcraft
Mixing folk, rock, funk, and gospel the socially conscious singer-songwriter speaks truth to power by homoring nature and keeping her song structures simple.
Toshi Reagon has been writing songs since childhood, and over the past 16 years since she started recording them, her sound has ranged from acoustic folk to Prince- and Lenny Kravits-influenced funk. Now in her early 40s, the soulful singer-songwriter can put her songcraft in perspective and evaluate its development. “I rarely write something and say, ‘Oh my God, this is a brilliant song,’” she confesses. “But looking back on some of the songs I’ve written, I might say, ‘That’s a good song.’ As I’ve become a better musician, I’ve become better at expressing myself with the clarity that comes from actually living life. My interests are more defined now, and I’m so much more in tune with what I want to say or do, so my writing is clearer and stronger.”
On her latest CD, Have You Heard (
Both her dedication to social justice and her penchant for musical variety are rooted in family history. Her parents, Cordell Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, were founding members of the Freedom Singers, the vocal group associated with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the early ’60s Civil Rights movement. Bernice Johnson Reagon continued that potent mix of political activism and African-American vocal traditions in the all-female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.
”My mom took my brother and me around with her everywhere—to concerts and folk festivals,” Reagon recalls. “And from a very early age I heard all kinds of different musicians. I probably got my first Jimi Hendrix record when I was four or five. We had Jackson 5, Sly and the Family Stine, the Fifth Dimension, and the Temptations, and later I got into Kiss, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Chaka Khan and Rufus, and Parliament Funkadelic, and then Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t listen to in my house—ever. To me, my musical taste is not eclectic, just very wide, and I know it sounds hokey, but I really see a oneness in music, as opposed to everything being segregated.”
The notion that she could be a musician first dawned on Reagon when she was seven years old, watching the Jackson 5 in concert. “All the kids were hysterical and screaming,” she remembers, “and I was like, ‘OK, everybody shut up, I can’t hear the music!’ I wanted to know who was in the band, who was playing the instruments.” By the time she was 11 or 12, Reagon was playing drums, followed soon by bass. When a friend in junior-high took up guitar, she did too, teaching herself to play Neil Young and Grateful Dead songs, as well as old blues classics.
Today, Reagon has seven albums to her credit, each reflecting increased self-confidence and discipline when it comes to songwriting. The key, she says, is simplicity. “I don’t have as much of a desire to jump through hoops in my songwriting as I did when I was younger,” she explains. “I don’t have tricks; I just say what I want to say and make it feel the way I feel. I don’t go on so many trips down roads that don’t have substance. Even my fun songs have substance. I try not to go on rants, but it’s good to say things in your songs that people can carry around with them and use.”
For many of the songs on Have You Heard Reagon uses images from nature—sunsets, rivers, “the silky air”—as metaphors, scene settings, and subjects in their own right. “I always call up those places in my writing,” she says. “They’re so much the basis of communal living. Not to be too new-age about it, but water, sun, and sky don’t belong to anyone specifically. They belong the the living community, and if I was going to make a Bible, everything would be based on taking care of those resources. I honestly think that if we based everything in our society on that, we’d be living in a very different way, in a very different world. So I talk about them in all kinds of different songs, whether they’re love songs or protest songs. Those images are like my religion, the truth of my existence.”
Toshi Reagon has depth. She sounds like someone who’s not only experienced everything she sings about, but triumphed over it. Like that triumph didn’t come easy, and like she’s filled with gratitude and occasional regret and a whole lot of living in the here and now. Like she’s never tired of laughing.
The title track of her sixth full-length album folk-rocks the black gospel song with a joyousness tinged with dangerous fire. How someone can take wheels and doves and other standard-issue God-stuff and make such fresh music out of it is a mystery nearly as great as those evoked in the song itself. “Down to the Water,” likewise, makes the old images new again. The vigor of Reagon’s alto is matched throughout by its plainspokenness; oh, she can wail and moan like any other soul stirrer but she generally chooses not to on this collection. The eroticism of “Building Blues” and “22 Hours” is hushed and subtle, carried as much by the steady rhythm of her guitar and the lyrics—for example, in the latter, “See how high you can take me/See how long ’til you make me/See how far ’til you break me”—as by vocal attitude.
Not every song is as remarkable as these, but even the lesser numbers, like the standard-issue soul chant “Didn’t I Tell You,” shimmer with energy. There are a lot of players on this disc, among them Mark Anthony Thompson (a.k.a. Chocolate Genius) on harmonica and backing vocals, Glenn Patscha on organ and keyboards, and Robert “Chicken” Burke on drums, but the sound is remarkably uncluttered, thanks to the nimble touch of producer Craig Street. At its best Have You Heard soars to heights of spiritual and erotic longing few artists can even attempt to scale.
—Pamela Murray Winters (Churchton, MD)
Buffalo News (Gusto), Buffalo, NY
February 17, 2006
Funky Folk: Toshi Reagon demonstrates how genre can transcend
Defining folk music these days is a tough proposition.
Technically, folk music is an idiom passed directly from person to person, transmitted aurally and in real time. That rules out recorded folk; “real” folk music is not recorded, but only heard when someone is actually performing it.
Maybe we should forget that whole idea. Folk music is at the heart of some of the strongest records of the rock era, after all. It has also grown to assimilate elements of funk, blues, pop, rock, punk, jazz and just about anything else a particular songwriter wishes to work into the mix. It's not all protest music, but some of it is. Much of it is played on acoustic guitars, but all of it isn't. It’s supposed to be thoughtful, reflective music, but some of the best of it just makes you want to dance.
No modern folk artist this side of Ani DiFranco better encapsulates the form's ability to transcend any strictures placed upon it, real or perceived, than Toshi Reagon. She was born to the gig – her mother is Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon. Sweet Honey brought serious gospel chops to bear on folk music, in the process bringing Leadbelly to church, so to speak. (For proof, check out the transcendent version of “Sylvie” Sweet Honey offers on the Folkways tribute to Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.)
Toshi Reagon has plenty of gospel in her aggressive, often funky folk, but she also grooves like an unplugged Prince, or lays down a four-on-the-floor funk workout that would make George Clinton proud. For Reagon, folk music is whatever she decides it should be.
Have You Heard, Reagon’s Righteous Babe debut, crams all of this inspired disregard for genre classification into 11 celebratory songs which, taken together, speak well of folk music’s future in the post- “direct aural transmission” world. Imagine Odetta covering an unplugged Led Zeppelin covering Robert Johnson. Toshi’s in there, somewhere.
—Jeff Miers, News Pop Music Critic