Singer, songwriter, pacifist/activist, and eight-time Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt, Radcliffe Class of 1972, will receive the Harvard Arts Medal, according to Winifred White Neisser ’74, member of the Harvard Board of Overseers. The award will be presented to Raitt on May 3 in Cambridge, as part of ARTS FIRST ’97, the fifth annual celebration of the arts at Harvard and Radcliffe.
The Harvard Arts Medal was created to honor a distinguished Harvard or Radcliffe alum or faculty member who has achieved excellence in the arts and who has made a special contribution to the public good or to education, broadly defined. In 1995, actor Jack Lemmon ’47 received the first Harvard Arts Medal, and in 1996, Pete Seeger ’40 was the honored recipient.
Bonnie Raitt was born in Los Angeles on election day in 1949, the daughter of the celebrated Broadway star, singer/actor John Raitt (Oklahoma and Carousel.) A popular and successful vocalist for over 25 years, Raitt performs music that includes blues, rock, folk, and rhythm-and-blues songs. She started playing the guitar at age 12, inspired by the music of traditional Mississippi blues guitarists.
Bonnie Raitt entered Radcliffe College in 1967, but left after two years to start her celebrated musical career. In the early 1970s she emerged as a unique folk and blues singer playing clubs throughout the Northeast. With her debut album, Bonnie Raitt, released in 1971, she established what would be her trademark, a deft blending of country blues sensibility with original and contemporary compositions, and varied blues guitar styles. Since then, she has played hundreds of concerts, recorded 14 solo albums and upwards of 50 recordings with other artists. Her most recent album is Road Tested, released in 1995.
In the spring of 1970, when outraged demonstrators roiled Harvard Square protesting the bombing of Cambodia, Bonnie Raitt ’72 was in the thick of it. “The police chased me into the Hayes-Bickford [cafeteria],” she recalls. “I pretended I was drinking a cup of coffee.” At the time Raitt was a concentrator in Afro-American studies, as well as, in her words, “a Quaker, an activist, and a burgeoning feminist.” One thing that attracted her to Harvard, she says, was that Cambridge was “an unbelievable hotbed of political activity,” as well as a center of intellectual life, folk music, and blues.
In addition to an outstanding singing career, Raitt has long been a committed social activist. She has devoted considerable time, energy, and financial resources to a variety of causes: human rights, anti-nuclear, pro-choice, and the environment. She is also a passionate crusader for the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, dedicated to boosting the income and visibility of aging and ailing R&B veterans. As vice-chair of the Foundation, Raitt has been active in organizing fundraising concerts and events both to raise money for the R&B pioneers, and also to support the historic and cultural preservation of rhythm and blues music. She also cofounded MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), a group dedicated to the anti-nuclear movement, and has been an active supporter through benefit concerts for this group, as well as Farm Aid, Amnesty International, and the anti-apartheid movement.
In her 20th Reunion Class Report she wrote to her classmates: “I’ve spent the last 20 years having the great good fortune of getting paid to play music I love and raise funds for various causes I believe in. No sign of having to get a job yet.”
In 1986, she contributed her services to Harvard University for its 350th celebration by giving a free concert to a large crowd in Harvard Yard.
Raitt lives in Los Angeles and is married to actor/poet Michael O’Keefe.
Raitt will be at Harvard May 2 and 3 during the ARTS FIRST ’97 festival.