“Together Again” was a highlight of alumna Emmylou Harris’ concert Jan. 24.
And it emerged as the theme of the day – a red letter day for UNC Greensboro and for all music lovers who treasure the music of Emmylou Harris, a roots music icon.
Emmylou Harris, who attended UNCG in the mid-1960s on a drama scholarship, returned to campus for her first public appearance here in five decades. And what a day it was.
Chancellor Gilliam, at a small ceremony in the Alumni House’s Virginia Dare Room, welcomed her and announced that she would receive an honorary degree. Among the guests was Sue Porto, her roommate in Bailey Residence Hall and longtime friend.
Before the evening concert, Harris presented a rare treat for students and the greater community: In a session moderated by music professor Gavin Douglas, she fielded questions on lots of topics.
Among her memories at UNCG? “I thought I was going to set the world on fire, with acting,” she said. But she caught the folk bug. “I would take my guitar down to Tate Street, to the Red Door – it’s no longer here.”
She added, “I was a really serious student. I had a fantastic history teacher. His name was Walter Luczynski. He made world history come alive for me. If I hadn’t gotten into music, I would have become a veterinarian or maybe a history teacher.”
She spoke about her academic experience: “There were some good teachers here.” She cited her “wonderful drama teacher, Miss England.” Harris got a choice part while a freshman – Miranda in “The Tempest.” But the words she was really interested in were not Shakespeare’s, but those of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, she explained.
“Eventually the music did take over, and I quit school to set the world on fire – with music. Basically, it took a long time and a lot of luck.”
She fielded questions about harmonizing with Gram Parsons (“It was just natural, like falling off a dang log”) and recording “Desire” with Bob Dylan (I thought he wanted me – he just wanted some girl singer … I love that I got to do that record”). She recalled singing with Mike Williams around campus while a student; they were called Emerald City, and they carefully worked out their harmonies ahead of time. They had a great version of “Yesterday,” she said.
She offered wisdom: As the old saying goes, it’s three chords and the truth. Be prepared for opportunities, so you’re ready when luck happens. Find the right key for yourself and the song.
The Q&A location had been switched to the Brown Building’s Sprinkle Theatre due to technical issues. Because some people could not get in the smaller space – someday people will say “I was there” in the same way some say the same about her intimate 1960s shows at the Red Door – she personally agreed to have the event streamed on Facebook Live, so all could see it. (View the video on UNCG’s Facebook page.)
After the event, moderator Douglas reflected on her “open-hearted engagement with everyone.” The questions, many she has been asked for 40 years or more, were “wonderfully varied,” he added, and he was struck by her descriptions of “chance encounters and one-off opportunities,” which she explained with wisdom and humility. “Inspiring for all of us,” he said.
The evening UCLS concert was packed, and the audience cheered loudly as she and her six-member band hit the stage.
“Here I Am,” quite appropriately, was her opening song. And she played for nearly two hours, mixing in stories about the Red Door on Tate Street, about opening for Townes Van Zandt early in her career, the idealism and folk music of the sixties, her loving parents, the guitar she bought downtown when she was a student.
“I have a lot of great memories of this place,” she told the packed house. Many of her Class of 1969 classmates were cheering from the front rows.
Throughout the evening, she drew from her album “Red Dirt Girl,” for which she wrote most of the songs, more than any other album.
And she ended this special UNCG concert with a transcendent version of “Together Again.”
And finally the song she called the first great song she ever wrote, “Boulder to Birmingham.”
The full song list:
- Here I am
- Orphan Girl
- Love and Happiness
- Red Dirt Girl
- Making Believe
- Get up John
- My Name is Emmett Till
- Raise the Dead
- Luxury Liner
- Prayer in Open D
- Pancho and Lefty
- Goin’ Back to Harlan
- O Evangeline
- (Going up home to live in) Green Pastures
- (I was) Born to Run
- Bang the Drum Slowly
- Shores of White Sand
- Abraham, Martin and John
- The Pearl
- Together Again
- Boulder to Birmingham
Story by Mike Harris, University Communications
Photography by Mike Micciche and Martin W. Kane
Videography by Grant Evan Gilliard, University Communications