The Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts at Appalachian State University presented the virtual program “Music and the Underground Railroad.” The Schaefer Center offers a wide-ranging series of music, dance, and theatre performances each season to, as put in the brief opening words by Christy Chenausky, “[inspire] a love of learning through the arts.” This virtual presentation fully succeeded in that aim.

The performance was given by musician and storyteller Reggie Harris. On his website he describes himself as “committed to music as a community-building vehicle.” This was an educational and musical experience directed at school-age audiences, via the university’s Virtual APPlause K-12 performing arts series. People in our community of all ages are likely to learn something about this important aspect of the American story. Everyone can enjoy the wonderful music which was part of that story.

Subtitled “A Story of Justice, Freedom, and Hope,” the performance was about the Underground Railroad in particular and slavery overall. Songs were interwoven with the story. Harris emphasized that songs were a vital part of life in Africa, then among Black slaves, and among those who made the difficult journey on the Underground Railroad. Harris, in his passion for the subject, for telling and singing the story of his people, was perhaps reminiscent of a griot, a traditional West African storyteller who preserves history and traditions. Griots may also be found on the coast of the American Southeast, among the Gullah, who are indigenous descendants of slaves in that region. The Gullah inhabit the 300 or so miles of coast – far more if one adds the countless inlets and estuaries which punctuate that coast – between Jacksonville, Florida and Wilmington, North Carolina.

The presentation was most directly suited to children from approximately the second to the sixth grade. Carefully crafted as it was, Harris told and sang the story with vitality, with the mission to bring understanding and empathy to the young people who would watch it. It began with a brief choral rendition of “Oh Freedom.” Then, Harris introduced himself and sang the same song a capella with clapping. He sang with verve and swing, in an upbeat fashion, like a celebration. The character and rhythm were uplifting, as one might be familiar with from the singing in a Black church. Definition of the Underground Railroad and a lucid, simplified explanation of American slavery grew from there.

Harris sometimes accompanied himself on his guitar, or with clapping – a strong characteristic of Black musicmaking going back well into slavery times. In his vivacious rendering of “I’m on My Way to Freedom Land” he asked the audience to sing in alternation with him, turning it into a traditional call and response tune, a type which was ubiquitous during slavery and remains so. Joining in on the response was all but irresistible. His next song was “No More Auction Block for Me,” again sung in a lively style, this time with Harris accompanying himself rhythmically on a drum. Drums were, and still are, the most common traditional instrument in West Africa, and some types have been in use for centuries. On the other hand, slave masters largely forbade their use, which explains why rhythmic devices such as clapping became the new tradition in America.

Periodically during the story there were pictures or dramatizations, which added a significant visual element. “No More Auction Block” came with pictures suggesting slavery and most affectingly, a drawing of slaves up for auction. After the song there was a dramatization of a man being sold and his sister screaming to no avail for them not to be separated. It was a short but rending scene which children could understand and adults could understand still more.

“Let us Break Bread Together on our Knees” was sung next, a capella. This illustrated an important part of life among slaves: a coded song, in this case calling people together to a secret meeting. Such songs helped make escapes on the Underground Railroad possible, and it is estimated (per Harris) that 150,000-200,000 people escaped slavery in that way. “Get on Board, Children, Children,” another coded Underground Railroad reference, followed.

Then came “Wade in the Water,” again with call and response. This song will be known to those familiar with (Black choreographer) Alvin Ailey’s classic dance masterpiece Revelations. Here it was sung with guitar. It was meant to help escapees remember to drink when they reached a stream or river. But also, and more disturbingly, to walk through water to evade the tracking dogs the slavemasters would send. There was a brief, scary evocation of that, with barking dogs.

An effective description of what fleeing on the Underground Railroad was like came with the song “I’m Trampin’, Trampin’, Trying to Make Heaven My Home.” Heaven was code for a northern state or Canada. This brought discussion of the heroic treks of Harriet Tubman. And then Harris, the descendent of slaves, turned to talking about his own family history. This was a memorable story that no viewer of any age should miss.

The closing song was “Free at Last,” a song which viewers old enough – or who have seen the recordings from the event – may recall from Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. This is where he gave his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech. (This writer is just old enough to remember when those events happened).

Following this conclusion to the 40-minute program, an additional 17 minutes had Harris discussing the subject more towards a teenaged and adult audience, while also playing and singing music. Some of it repeated earlier material, some was different.

A presentation like this is of great value for our children. Harris’ energetic, rhythmic singing makes the music exciting and fun. Parents, experience it together with your kids. With or without kids, you will learn more than you realize about Black musical traditions. And Harris’ family story is one that every American ought to hear. The entire program is available online and on-demand through November 24, 2021.