Kemp Harris

Kemp Harris


By Art Tipaldi
November 2007

A funny thing happened to Kemp Harris since his 2002 record, Sometimes In Bad Weather.

He discovered a timeless voice to deliver his messages as both singer and songwriter. Then, Harris opted to mostly arrange his songs with new-fashioned R&B interpretations, or with hip jazz arrangements.

Here, Harris, a 40-year veteran musician and teacher, asserts his profound understanding that the power of our musical root system can restore and revitalize the soul, and give strength in the darkest times.

Though Edenton might sound like a nostalgic lament for home, it is more. It is the perfect blending of spirituals and blues - two essential taproots of American music, with contemporary lyrics and themes.

The disc opens with its universal theme laid out. The haunting call-and-response of “Sometimes” starts the record with a solemn reminder of the spiritual “Motherless Child.” Yet at the same time, it is a reminder that, in a world of chaos, home is a place to heal.

In “Sometimes,” Harris tells us why he’s singing.

“Sweep Weepin’ Jesus,” led by Josh Stoltzfus’ sparse, trembling guitar and the harmonies of the Holmes Brothers, indicts the absence of moral values in our modern, secular world. The Holmes Brothers add more heavenly voices on the dirge-like “Day After Day.”

After three highly spiritual takes, Harris howls a sinister, Howlin’ Wolf groove on Donnie Hathaway’s “Tryin’ Times,” a still relevant look at man’s inhumanity around the world.

His after hours approach on Willie Nelson’s “Nightlife” quietly thunders a personal commitment. Harris’ solitary street-corner chanting on “Ruthie’s” raps on his loss of faith in modern church scriptures which seem to divide, not unite.

Memphis Slim’s seminal “Mother Earth” finds its strength in Harris’ steadfast delivery and Stoltzfus’ Muddy Waters styled slide. That same muddied guitar is at the center of Harris’ bluesy “Miles Between Us.” With each expansive Stoltzfus string bend, you can feel stress and tension released.

With just claps and voices, his mother and aunt, -both in their 70’s - join Harris on “Didn’t It Rain,” the stripped down Gospel testifyin’ tune of this homecoming.

When Harris has illuminated our confusing world, he gives us the title track, a song about the hopeful days we all once lived. “Edenton,” our modern day Eden, was the archetypal childhood home where people smiled and walked safe. Coming home, Harris looks at the past as photos colored in sepia. Like so many of us, he too never knew he’d be gone this long, literally or metaphorically.

For the past 35 years, Harris has worked full-time teaching kindergarten in Newton. He’s also taught a song-writing workshop for high school students at Berklee, and composed a piece called “If Loneliness Was Black” for Alvin Ailey’s dance troupe.

As a songwriter, Harris has his finger on the pulse of today, but with the strength of America’s musical root system. He sings with an intensity born of awareness, and he writes with an uncomplicated understanding of what people in the world are lacking.

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