Living in our fragmented world, veteran African American folksinging couple Kim and Reggie Harris have always conveyed a central message in their hundreds of yearly musical performances and educational workshops – we are one! While celebrating our many differences, such as race, religion and nationality, we are all part of humankind and must work toward peace, freedom and understanding through activism, solidarity and faith in the human capacity for goodness.
Let My People Go! presents a memorable analogy in song and spoken word between the story of the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt in the 13th Century B.C.E., as retold at the annual Passover Seder meal, and the African American struggle toward equality in America as exemplified by the mid-Sixties Civil Rights Movement, in which many Jewish activists were involved. No preaching, no heavy-handed didactics – this is an uplifting and enlightening celebration of accomplishment through action.
The CD’s rich tapestry of music and history is the outgrowth of a friendship forged at a late ’80s Phil Jackson-led basketball camp between musician/activist Reggie Harris and Jonathan Kligler, then a rabbinical student and now the spiritual leader of Kehillat Lev Shalem, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in upstate New York. Their relationship grew to include their families, the Harrises’ attendance at the annual Kligler Seders, and the concept for this collaboration: that oppression, struggle and hope are a common ground between the Jewish and African American communities.
Let My People Go! seamlessly interweaves songs in Hebrew from the Passover Haggadah, the book chronicling the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, with traditional Black Spirituals carrying the ideals of equality and freedom, and songs from the Civil Rights era by Phil Ochs (“What’s That I Hear”) and Freedom Singers Marshall and Matt Jones (who perform their respective compositions “In the Mississippi River,” a gospel-blues about the three Civil Rights activists slain in 1964, and the CD-closing statement of faith and purpose, “I Won’t Turn Back”). There is also a moving poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “I Have a Million Nightingales, set to music by Jewish cantor Linda Hirschhorn, and a new composition by Kim and Reggie – “Freedom Road” – that summarizes the unquenchable desire for and journey toward equality and self-determination.
Interspersed with the songs are spoken firsthand accounts of watershed events in the modern civil rights movement: African American activist Juanita Nelson, describes her desegregation battles in Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati; Rabbi Arthur Waskow tells of his lifechanging encounters with Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1964 Democratic National Convention; musical and humanitarian activist icon Pete Seeger recounts the evolution of “We Shall Overcome” from a spiritual to a late 19th Century union rallying cry to its eventual use as a civil rights anthem and statement of determination; WRPI folk radio program host Sonny Ochs recalls her late brother Phil’s commitment to justice and equality in many of his songs.
An appropriately varied musical cast was assembled for the CD: augmenting Kim and Reggie’s exuberant lead vocals and glorious trademark harmonies, Rabbi Kligler’s rich baritone, and Reggie’s exemplary acoustic guitarwork is a melting pot of co-celebrants that includes folk musicians/educators Bill and Livia Vanaver, keyboardist David Sancious (formerly of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band), bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) and lead guitarist John Platania (Van Morrison, Don McLean), among others. Clarinetist Peter Davis adds a high-spirited Klezmer sound to several tracks, and Rabbi Kligler’s congregation adds vocals to the celebratory “Ilu Finu” and traditional spiritual “I’m on My Way.” In keeping with the family-oriented spirit of the project, Rabbi Kligler’s wife, Ellen Jahoda, recites the sonnet at the base of the Statue of Liberty on a medley of “The New Colossus” (the poem), Irving Berlin’s melody “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” and the African American Spiritual “Motherless Child”; his 11-year-old daughter Timna chants a thousand-year-old Jewish declaration of faith, “Ani Ma’amin,” that leads into a gospel-flavored rendition of “We Shall Overcome” featuring a hopeful rap by Kim and Reggie’s teenaged nephew, LeVonn Brown.
The Harrises and Rabbi Kligler present music from Let My People Go! at select festivals, concert appearances, community gatherings, and workshops in upcoming months, and a DVD of their live presentation is in the planning stages.
About Rabbi Jonathan Kligler:
Rabbi Kligler has two previous CDs to his credit: a live concert recording of American and Israeli folk songs called Songs of Love, Hope and Courage, and Come My Friend: Songs and Blessings for Shabbat (with Zoe. B. Zak).
Born in White Plains, NY, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler has been bringing people together through song, dance and joy for more than 30 years since his days as a teenage songleader at summer camp. Kligler’s eclectic resume includes professional mime, children’s performer and teacher of improvisational dance. Ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia, Pa., Rabbi Kligler has been the spiritual leader of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, Kehillat Lev Shalem (which means “the Congregation of the Full Heart”), in Woodstock, NY, since 1988.