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America's Music:
A Film History of Our Popular Music From Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway

The Blues and Gospel Music

Thursday, January 31, 2013, 6:30 p.m., Warch Campus Center Cinema

Featuring a special appearance by the Viking Chorale, directed by Professor Stephen Sieck

Before you go: read an introduction to The Blues and Gospel

Read/Listen to/View more about The Blues and Gospel Music

The series opens with Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Episode 1, Feel Like Going Home. This acclaimed 7- part series is director Martin Scorsese’s lyrical journey into the landscape and origins of the blues.

Using archival Library of Congress recordings and footage gathered by John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s and 40s, the film explores the birth of the blues out of the hard time experiences of black farmers and cotton workers in the Mississippi Delta. On-screen subtitles of the bleak lyrics of primitive blues songs attest to the subsistence existence of early blues musicians, and demonstrate the blues as "storytelling through music.”

Moving between past and present, contemporary blues musician Corey Harris serves as on-camera guide, dialoguing with local artists like Willy King and Sam Carr on front porches in the Alabama hills and juke joints in Mississippi.

Using rarely seen interviews and performances, the film introduces the great early blues masters Son House, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. Their stories and songs are interwoven with current performances of some of their classics – King performs ‘Spoonful’ at Bettie’s Place in Prairie Point, Mississippi, and Harris and Keb Mo’ perform ‘Sweet Home Chicago’.

Other highlights include musician Taj Mahal discussing the influence of the early bluesmen Son House and Muddy Waters on his own, and on contemporary music.

The second excerpt comes from the cinema verité classic Say Amen, Somebody. It features three epochal figures who pioneered the Golden Age of Gospel Music: Willie Mae Ford Smith, Thomas A. Dorsey and Sallie Martin.

Each played influential roles in creating gospel music as we know it today: Dorsey’s songs are credited with marrying blues music and rhythms with religious and inspirational lyrics; Martin helped him create a national training ground and market for gospel singing; and "Mother" Smith became one of its first and most proficient soloists, mentoring younger singers including Mahalia Jackson.

This clip begins in church, where Mother Smith, now in her 80s, belts out the gospel standard "That’s All Right" with the vocal dynamism that made her famous. Speaking to the preacher afterwards, she reminisces about the condemnation she faced when first singing her bluesy "new" music in church.

Dr. Dorsey recounts playing the blues circuit with Ma Rainey, and writing over 300 blues songs in the 1920s. Sallie Martin acted as his business manager, traveling the country to introduce his new kind of songs that blended blues and spirituals to church choirs. Martin and Dorsey sing an impromptu rendition of "If You See My Saviour" along with the original recording he made in 1932.

As Mother Smith counsels a young singer named Zella Jackson Price about life on the road, the film demonstrates both the special difficulties and the unique opportunities for women gospel singers in the (especially at the time of the filming) male-dominated church. Zella’s rousing rendition of “I’m His Child” conveys the power, inspiration and sheer joy in this unique form of American music.

Feel Like Going Home photo credit, Sony Music/Legacy Recordings
Say Amen, Somebody photo credits, ©2012 George Nierenberg

Be sure to attend the second viewing/discussion session on Thursday, February 7, Swing Jazz.

“America’s Music” is a project by the Tribeca Film Institute in collaboration with the American Library Association, Tribeca Flashpoint, and the Society for American Music. “America’s Music” has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.