By TOM GODFREY
Toronto blues singer Diana Braithwaite has turned her family ties to the Underground Railroad into a touring musical festival to help enlighten young audiences and raise funds for a historic church.
Award-winning performers Braithwaite and long-time partner, Chris Whiteley, are hitting the road this week with their Underground Railroad Music Festival and will be at Hugh’s Room, on Dundas St. W., on September 28.
Braithwaite’s great-great-great grandfather was Dangerfield Lawson, a U.S. slave who escaped from his Virginia masters twice before making it to freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad in the late 1700s.
Lawson resettled in Wellington County, where his descendants lived for four generations.
“The festival is entertaining and educational,” Braithwaite told Share. “It is a fun show that will leave people enlightened about our history and feeling good about the music.”
She said some proceeds of the festival will be used to help restore the Salem Chapel, BME Church, in St. Catharines, where abolitionist Harriet Tubman prayed while staying in that city from 1851 to 1861 to help free slaves and escape U.S. slavery laws.
“Harriet Tubman was a highly revered member of the community,” said Braithwaite. “She would return to the South to rescue those who were daring enough to escape from bondage.”
This year’s theme is “North meets South: Old Songs for a New Day”, featuring Zakiya Hooker, the daughter of legendary bluesman, John Lee Hooker. The event will feature a rare performance by the Georgia Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, a group of eight who have kept alive for generations the songs and healing traditions of their ancestors who came from Africa.
“The festival is bluesy with a traditional vibe presenting individuals or groups that will touch your heart and soul with their unique history and songs,” said Braithwaite, adding most of the material relates to the Underground Railroad.
Braithwaite said this is the fifth year of the festival, which is being staged indoors in Fergus, St. Catharines and Toronto, “where people who travelled through the Underground Railroad settled”.
“The festival goes beyond the music with a strength of spirit story and a celebration of victory and faith,” she said. “You will be touched by each performer, their unique stories and what they each bring to their music.”
The pair does a lot of work in schools and has created a multimedia musical history workshop that has been seen by more than 60,000 primary and middle school students across North America.
Braithwaite and Whiteley are nine-time national blues award winners and their last album, DeltaPhonic, reached number one on the XM satellite radio program, B.B. King’s Bluesville. They also copped a Chicago African-American Women in the Arts Award and have racked up six Juno Award nominations.
She was chosen by Sarah McLachlan to open Lilith Fair at the Molson Amphitheatre before 18,000 people and has performed with Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker and Jeff Healey in shows across North America and Europe.
Kansas-born Whiteley appeared on the TV show, Saturday Night Live and has toured and recorded with Blind John Davis and Leon Redbone. He has performed on more than 200 recordings and in 2010 was awarded the Blues With a Feeling Award for lifetime achievement in the blues.
The festival is named in honour and memory of the Underground Railroad, which was a series of routes and networks fugitive slaves like Lawson used to escape from the southern United States to the north and on to Canada.