On Saturday, St. John’s Episcopal Church became a venue that harked back to the socially conscious vibe of the civil rights movement. “It Ain’t Nice” was one of the events organized as part of the College’s commemoration and celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The event, co-sponsored by the Multicultural Center and St. John’s, provided an opportunity for artists with a deep appreciation of diverse culture to perform in observance of the holiday.
“It Ain’t Nice” combined two musician pairs: Kim and Reggie Harris, and Charlie King and Karen Brandon, who teamed up to form an engaging quartet that embodied the message of Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite different backgrounds, the couples came together in a harmony of entertainment with apt messages.
The audience included members of the congregation, filling about a third of St. John’s. Fittingly, the performers catered to the older set with several covers of baby boomer indie songs. With Reggie on guitar and Charlie wielding the harmonica, the quaint quartet opened with the lively “On My Way to Freedomland,” encouraging those in the pews to sing along.
The elegant “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain Are the Steps of Those Who Walk in Peace” followed. The two songs in effect represented the range of the group’s song repertoire. Their lyrics were simple, their voices clear and unadorned – the act was imbued with a noteworthy verve. Their energy, along with their music, took the audience back to the time of sit‑ins, the abolitionist movement and finally to the present. The journey led to a powerful realization that current politics and international relations are reflections of other historical milestones.
Harris and her husband, whose talents have been recorded on Steal away Songs of the Underground Railroad, performed duets such as the rousing “Walkin’ Down to Freedomland” and the endearing “Heaven is Less than Kind.” One of the most moving selections of the night was “Stars That Did Not Shine,” Kim’s a cappella solo about baseball, which provided commentary on segregation in America’s national pastime.
The other musicians involved in “It Ain’t Nice” were equally captivating. Behind their quirky style was a biography just as off‑beat. Charlie introduced himself as a “roaming Catholic,” while Karen identified as a “Jewish Buddhist.” They have conducted musical workshops and collaborated on half-a-dozen CDs, using their graduate degrees in education to “support … numerous groups working for peace, human and labor rights, environmental sanity and alternatives to violence.”
Together, Charlie and Karen performed a duet of an ironic Susan Werner song that encapsulated their life story and message. The pair further displayed their talents with a bilingual version of a Nevira Reynolds song, which drew parallels between empathy with past social tragedies and the current Haitian earthquake situation. Karen, a Spanish translator and interpreter for progressive situations, and her solo cover of a Steve Goodwin song about a war widow added realism to the situations in Iraq and Vietnam.
The focus of the event ranged across issues that are both deeply rooted in U.S. history and still sprout up in current events, from economics in the Depression‑era song “Hallelujah (Revive Us Again)” to homosexuality in “Two in Twenty (It’s a Lot Less Lonely That Way.” The group sang some of Charlie’s original creations, such as “Gonna Sing Mandela Free,” and a post‑election rant inspired by Dorothy Day, called “Our Problems Stem from Our Acceptance of this Filthy Rotten System,” with kazoo accompaniment.
They moved on to track the progress of equality with an upbeat ditty: “Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Barack could run so our children could fly.” One of the most musically complex pieces was their version of a Palestinian poem set to music, “I Have A Million Nightingales on the Branches of My Heart Singing Freedom.” They progressed on an optimistic note with the fast‑tempoed “Heaven Knows How (We’ll Get There)” and then closed with the jazzy “God Danced – for the Gift of You,” which they dedicated to Dr. King.
“It Ain’t Nice” taught and entertained, but mostly shed light on how past generations maintained an issue‑sensitive fervor that our age lacks. Our society may have closed in on King’s dream, but possibly at the expense of experiencing activism through art. Performances with messages for change are becoming an anachronism in this age, not because they are not needed but because of a shift to the importance of style over substance. A reminder of the bare bones of social awareness was a nice change.