America’s Music film series kicks off: Blues and Gospel

Kelsey Priebe

The America’s Music: A Film History series, presented by the Seeley G. Mudd library,  kicked off Thursday, January 31st with a presentation on Blues and Gospel Music held in the cinema.  While the room was overflowing with audience members, only a handful seemed to be students. 

This was a true lost opportunity for them, as this first event of the series was excellently run and extremely interesting for both music aficionados and otherwise. Erica Scheinberg, Visiting Assistant Professor of Music, did an excellent job of keeping the audience attentive throughout the entire presentation through the use of lecture, musical excerpts, film and discussion.

Scheinberg began with an interesting and concise overview of the history behind Blues and Gospel music, using short musical excerpts to connect the audience to the music.  While she used some advanced musical terms in her talk, she kept most of the musical vocabulary to a minimum so that the entire audience could follow along. 

After her lecture Scheinberg, Schneider presented excerpts of Martin Scorsese’s Blues documentary, “Feel Like Going Home,” and a Gospel documentary called “Say Amen, Somebody.”  These two films were extremely well chosen, as they introduced the audience to some of the greats such as Sam Carr and Willie King of the Blues genre, and Tom Dorsey and Sally Martin of Gospel music.

Scorsese’s documentary was unique in that it introduced the audience to Blues players spanning three generations.  Corey Harris, a young Blues musician, travels down south to the Mississippi to meet with several Blues artists playing either in the 60’s like Taj Mahal or the 30’s and 40’s like Othar Turner.

The generational span between all three Blues musicians allowed the film to give a first-hand account of three generations of the Blues while authentically showing how the styles have changed through present day “jam sessions” between the younger and older generations.  The documentary kept a nice mix between music and conversation between the musicians so that the audience could follow along on their unique journey.

Nierenberg’s documentary, “Say Amen, Somebody” offered a more emotional look into the world of Gospel music and, more specifically, the role of women within it.  We took a look into the touring life of Tom Dorsey and Sally Martin and got to hear the duo, now well into their 70’s and 80’s, sing an old duet together with still an impressive amount of voice. 

The most interesting part of the excerpt was likely the conversation between Will Mae Ford Smith, a Gospel legend, and new Gospel star Zella Jackson Price.  The two women discussed the challenges they both faced and were facing with living the life of a traveling gospel singer while maintaining a family.  Both mentioned the grief they received from their husbands due to their travel and the pain they felt at leaving their children for weeks at a time.  However, both women reaffirmed both the importance of their work and a solid resolve to continue facing these challenges for the sake of their faith and music.  This was fascinating as there is so little discussion about the challenges women in professional gospel choirs face. 

Overall, both documentaries were well chosen and entertaining.  The discussion portion that followed the two excerpts was lively, a good indication that the first event of the America’s Music Series had been a success.  I would highly encourage students to participate in the next lecture/discussion on Swing Jazz, to be held on February 7th at 6:30.