The beginning of Sweet Honey In The Rock is discovered in the life and times of Bernice Johnson Reagon, the founding and only consistent member of the group.
To be fair, all of the twenty-one former and current members are Sweet Honey, for Sweet Honey is the musical embodiment of the spirit of freedom whose roots go back to Africa, were nurtured by slavery, the Jubilee and the continuing struggles to realize that freedom. You must understand that Sweet Honey is a true community. Bernice is quoted saying, "I feel Sweet Honey as a woman with a single voice created out of many voices and when we walk off the stage, she really isn't there." None the less that single voice does have a beginning. In 1973 Bernice Johnson Reagon was the vocal director of the DC Black Repertory Theater Company in Washington, DC. She had been singing since her childhood, in no small part due to the fact that her father was a Baptist minister in the rural town of Albany, Georgia. She was attending Albany State College, singing in the choir and studying Italian arias and German lieder as a contralto soloist, when the first march of the movement, which became known as the Albany Movement, occurred.in December of 1961. In jail she discovered the spirit sustaining power of song and became a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, ultimately becoming a member of the original Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers. As a Freedom Singer she traveled the country, teaching the songs of the movement ("We Shall Not Be Moved") and also songs learned from the churches of her youth which so often dealt with the subject of freedom denied. With her background it was no surprise that she formed Sweet Honey, to continue that ongoing inspirational work, with members of her workshop at the Repertory Theater Company, in 1973. The first song that the original group learned was "Sweet Honey In The Rock," a song from her youth based on a religious parable. It was felt that the image was a suitable metaphor for African-American women; strong as a rock, sweet as honey. In the Spring of l975 Sweet Honey was performing at the Folk Festival at the University of Chicago when they were offered and agreed to a record for Flying Fish Records. Their first release was followed by one for Redwood Records, then back with Flying Fish for many more. Through out the years Sweet Honey has been inspiring audiences and receiving awards for their musical virtuosity such as the Grammy in l988 in the category of Best Traditional Folk Recording for their version of Leadbelly's "Grey Goose" from the album Folkways, A Vision Shared. They've also been awarded countless CARA first and runner up awards. Though there has never been an award, that we know of, for best sign language interpretation of song, there should be. Shirley Childress Johnson discovered within herself the expressive balletic capacity to sign songs with the power and beauty of the singing members, and has been doing so since 1980. As a tribute to Sweet Honey In The Rock, allow us to list the other members, present and past, Louise Robinson, Carol Maillard, Mie, Dianaruthe Wharton, Evelyn Marie Harris, Rosie Lee Hooks, Ayodele Harrington, Ingrid Ellis, Tia Juana Starks, Patricia Johnson, Yasmeen Williams, Laura Sharp, Tulani Jordan Kinard, Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Helena Coleman, Geraldine Hardin, Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel and Akua Opokuwaa. For a final word here's Bernice. "We are warriors. Our songs sounds and lyrics give us stance – make clear the ground we hold. We name through our singing the territory of the expanding community we sound. When you see our songs, you see the tip of the mountain upon which we stand and it is solid ground."