Sweet Honey in the Rock begins 2008-09 OVATIONS! Series

Grammy Award-winning a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock will launch the Edison Theatre OVATIONS! Series with a special one-night-only performance 8 p.m. Sept. 27.

Sweet Honey in the Rock was founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, Ph.D., then a graduate student of history at Howard University and vocal director of the D.C. Black Repertory Theater Company.

The a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock has been singing its soulful harmonies and intricate rhythms since 1973.

A native of Georgia, Reagon was the daughter of a Baptist preacher and, in the 1960s, had traveled across the country as a charter member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers, a civil rights group. Her new, all-female quartet took its name from the first song they learned, “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” a religious parable based on Psalm 81:16, which describes a land so rich that honey pours from the rock. (The group also saw the story as a metaphor for African-American women: sweet as honey, strong as a rock.)

After performing at a University of Chicago folk festival in 1975, Sweet Honey was signed to Flying Fish Records and the following year released its self-titled debut. Featuring soulful harmonies and intricate rhythms, the album was steeped in the music of the civil rights movement and the African-American church. Tracks ranged from traditional hymns and bluesy love songs to an adapted Langston Hughes poem and the politically charged “Joanne Little,” which Reagon wrote about a North Carolina woman who’d been assaulted by her white jailer.

“We are warriors,” Reagon wrote in the liner notes to the group’s 20th anniversary album, “Still on the Journey” (1993). “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.”

Over the years, Sweet Honey has continued to expand its musical horizons, combining gospel and spiritual roots with jazz, rap, reggae, hip hop, African chants and contemporary rhythm and blues. The group has released more than a dozen albums and won two Grammy Awards — for their version of Leadbelly’s “Grey Goose,” from the compilation “Folkways: A Vision Shared” (1988) and for “Still the Same” (2000), a children’s album that also received the Silver Award from the National Association of Parenting Publications.

Sweet Honey also has released a pair of DVDs: “Singing for Freedom” and “Raise Your Voice” (both 2005). In 1993, Reagon wrote a history of the group, “We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey In The Rock, Still on the Journey.” Their most recent recording is “Experience 101,” a buoyant collection of call-and-response children’s songs that celebrate the joys of learning.

Though Reagon retired in 2004, Sweet Honey continues to record and perform internationally. The current six-woman lineup features original members Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson, along with Ysaye Maria Barnwell, who joined in 1979; Nitanju Bolade Casel, who joined in 1985; and Aisha Kahlil, who joined in 1981. Shirley Childress Saxton serves as sign language interpreter.

Tickets are $20 for Washington University students; $28 for faculty, staff and seniors; and $32 for the public. Tickets are available at the Edison Theatre Box Office and through all MetroTix outlets.

For more information, call 935-6543 or visit edisontheatre.wustl.edu.