Folk singer-songwriter Greg Greenway was born in a hospital right beside Jefferson Davis Highway in Richmond, Virginia. The former capital of the Confederacy also has statues on Monument Avenue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Matthew Fontaine Maury.
“I grew up and was raised in that world and that nostalgia,” he recalled. “Then, as I got older and the world expanded for me, I realized what a half-truth I had been told, what a fairy tale I had been told. This is not just for the South. This is a metaphor for America. We’ve all been told a fairy tale.”
Folk singer-songwriter Reggie Harris can trace his ancestry to a plantation just outside of Richmond. The nationally touring artists met 30 years ago during a Phil Ochs Song Night and became instant friends through their mutual love of music and sports.
Throughout the years, they have discussed race and the importance of stories that need to be told. For about a decade, they wanted to put together a touring musical show dedicated to talking about race and building tolerance, but their hectic touring schedules got in the way — Harris as a member of the folk duo Kim and Reggie Harris and Greenway in the trio Brother Sun.
Several years ago, the two took a 23-hour road trip from New England to New Orleans during which they developed the concept for a show that would be part concert, part service and part workshop. Their destination was the Whitney Plantation, a museum that focuses on slavery.
With Brother Sun ending and Harris’s duo going part-time, the men felt that the racial unrest occurring over the last year made it an ideal time for the show they dubbed “Deeper Than Skin.” Since its debut at a 2017 Unitarian Universalist conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma Voting Rights Action, they have performed more than 50 shows across the East Coast and the South. That show makes its way to Focus Music on Sunday, April 22, at Rockville’s Tikvat Israel Congregation.
“We are going to tell our story,” Greenway said. “(Race) is such an incredibly difficult topic, and no one is an expert on it– we certainly don’t want to present ourselves as experts … all I do know is my story, but my story is unique, and Reggie’s story is unique and together our story is way unique.”
Harris recorded six albums with his duo and does solo folk concerts and educational storytelling events with songs focusing on human and civil rights. A degenerative liver condition nearly took his life in 2008; just in time, he received a transplant from an organ donor. Harris recalls waking up in the hospital with a feeling of purpose.
“You came very close to not being here,” he recalled thinking. “Since you are here, it is time to let go of fears about being liked or about people feeling like you were saying too much … and to live life with a lot more joy and a lot more sense of purpose, that I am going to represent what I represent. Not in a way that puts people on edge or getting up in people’s faces about it, but in a very respectful and thoughtful way.
“I decided to speak and sing what I believe. What has come from that is an openness to my audiences and an openness in my life that has created all kinds of new opportunities.”
Greenway found his instrument as a young child. Since no other children were present at a get-together he attended with his parents, the sympathetic hostess offered him something to do. “From the second I picked up that ukulele, it made sense to me,” he said.
Greenway has released eight solo albums along with three from Brother Sun. “I’m going to die (one day),” he said. “I’m going to go away. No one will care about me or my music, but you know what? I will have been part of a great chain of people who are holding up the idea of equality and justice and things that for thousands of years, human beings have tried to find.”
The show features songs they have written, and they play each one to punctuate an emotional point in their stories. They also talk about how we can all come together and where we go from here. While there are tense moments, Greenway stressed, they discuss a serious topic with uplift and light. “If we can all stand there and talk together, this is a beginning and that is all we ever say,” he said. “We are not trying to point fingers to blame anyone. …We are all just people and we all have a story. Everyone does and through telling that and by being honest about it and historically based, something magical happens.”
They reference a statement from human rights activist Malcolm X in the show: “We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience and patience creates unity.”
“So often we are afraid to make a mistake (when discussing race) or people think it is a topic that will just lead to a fight,” Harris said. “The show is not about fighting. The show is actually about love. I hope that people see that. I know that they will see that because that is what they tell us they see. They tell us that they see two people standing on a stage who come from different backgrounds who love each other.”
Harris hopes people leave with the knowledge that doing something small can make a very big difference. “It’s not about solving the whole problem (of racism),” he said. “It’s just about making one small change in your thought pattern or your life or maybe in your perspective that opens a window to real change.”
The country has become polarized and Greenway notes “we need to understand as people we have more in common that we have different and we need to look at the forces that tend to push us apart from each other and understand why they exist. If people walk away with an informed hope (from this show), that is something we hope for.”
The show offers an opportunity to see a way forward in a very difficult time. “The nation hasn’t really been this polarized since the Civil War,” Harris said. “…What I hear from people is ‘What can I do?’… At the core, most people really want to do something. Most people don’t want to live in a climate that is this polarized and this angry. I think we are, among many people working at this, providing a window for action and providing a window for opportunity for making a difference.”
Focus Music presents “Deeper Than Skin,” a performance by Reggie Harris and Greg Greenway, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 22, at Tikvat Israel Congregation, 2200 Baltimore Road, Rockville. Tickets are $18 in advance at http://www.focusmusic.org/buy-tickets and for members, $20 at the door.