I am so excited to report that the National Women’s History Project has honored, among its 10 honorees, Toshi Reagan, a Michfest sister, who I first saw perform at Michfest on an August night in 2004, then went to see out here in Seattle at the Tractor Tavern in 2005 when she came to play. I intended to blog about March being National Women’s History Month and went to check out the NWHP site and was so, so happy to see this! Toshi Reagan deserves this honor.
Mixing folk, rock, funk, and gospel the socially conscious singer-songwriter speaks truth to power by honoring 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 somethig 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 (Righteous Babe), Reagon shifts from impassioned conversations with a lover (”Didn’t I Tell You,” “Ooh Wee”) to equally heartfelt commentaries that temper political discontent with spiritual optimism (”Have You Heard,” “Down to the Water,” “Dream”). Musically, abetted by producer Craid Street (known for his work with Cassandra Wilson, Chris Whitley, and k.d. lang), Reagon seamlessly stitches together folk instrumentation, rock and funk rhythms, and rousing gospel harmonies, driving most of the songs with her forceful strumming and blues-based picking on the Alvarez Yairi given to her be Righteous Babe founder Ani DiFranco.
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.”