Watch … and Listen
Editor's note: "Through a Screen Darkly," a monthly commentary by CT Movies critic Jeffrey Overstreet,explores films old and new, as well as relevant themes and trends in cinema. The column continues the journey begun in Overstreet's book of the same name.
I was a toddler when I first heard "I'd like to teach the world to sing / in perfect harmony" coming from my family's black-and-white television. It's amazing I remember it so well, even more amazing that I remember seeing people dance to that famous Coca-Cola jingle. In a powerful way, music helps us see more clearly.
That song was such a simple sentiment, but its fundamental idea is powerful and true—music can cultivate harmony and peace. That's evident in three new DVDs, which take you on three remarkable musical journeys—to the Talladega National Forest, or the Ozarks, or South Africa—to experience soulful, inspiring music from unforgettable people.
These three films—Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, Homemade Hillbilly Jam, and We Are Together—would make a fine festival for anyone who loves good movies and great music.
Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp
"If you sing it very long it'll be in your blood and you'll never get it out."
That's Elene Stovall of Birmingham, talking about Sacred Harp singing, a communal form of worship, a musical tradition of a capella hymn singing with deep roots in American church history.
Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp inspired me so much that I watched it again the very next day with my surround-sound system turned up to "11." The DVD is on my list of "Things to Give the Family for Christmas."
Sacred Harp singing has roots in America's rural South that go back about 200 years. The name comes from the only musical instrument involved—"the instrument given by God"— the human voice. And before this lively documentary is over, you're likely to conclude that the music's power is inspired by the gospel at its heart.
It pays to have a powerful sound system. You'll wonder how these singers, pressed tightly into the pews of small church sanctuaries, have any voice left at the end of a gathering. They're trying to shatter the stained glass windows, singing for hours. The power resonates in the floor, through the soles of your shoes, and up into your ribs—as if the music is trying to shake your own voice loose.
Turn it up. Awake My Soul will make you want to sing.
Erica Hinton, who co-directed Awake with her husband Matt, started filming in 1998 for a 10-minute film for a class at Georgia State University. She had been to a couple of Sacred Harp singings, and thought it would be a good topic.
But she "quickly came to realize that ten minutes was nowhere close to enough time to tell the story of this deep subject," she told me. "We were both inspired to make a more in-depth film… . Basically, we just didn't stop filming, even after I was done with that film course… . Eventually [we] had to make ourselves quit filming and start focusing on turning our huge amount of footage into a film."
Showing exemplary respect for their subjects, the Hintons draw out the history of Sacred Harp from longtime devotees like Richard Delong of Whitesburg, Georgia, who brings us into the assembly at Shoal Creek Church in Talladega National Forest. He describes "shape note singing," a method of teaching music that grew popular as Protestant churches sought to cultivate some form of musical discipline.
For many viewers, 91-year-old Raymond Hamrick, a watch repairman and Sacred Harp songwriter, will be the most memorable character. Hamrick composed "Lloyd," a popular Sacred Harp hymnal tune, after hearing a heavenly host in his dream. "He'd like this song sung at his funeral," says Erica, "but only if there's more of a handful of singers singing it. … I find comfort in the thought that there will be singers spilling out of the room when that sad day comes, possibly in small part due to our film."