Lost in translation
Because I’m sure many of you watched the Oscars last night and woke up this morning thinking, “why aren’t there more movies about southern gospel music?”, here’s a clip via southerngospelcritique that might help answer your post-Oscar query, from the 1966 non-event movie, Sing a Song For Heaven’s Sake:
For some background on the movie, check out David Bruce Murray’s encyclopedia entry on the film. As DBM notes, the film “failed to attract attention at the secular box office.” Shocking, idn’t it?
Full copies of the film are hard to come (there’s one here for $150) but as DBM also notes, the movie is basically a flimsy plot device that serves as a pretext for a bunch of groups to perform a song on camera. Judging from the available clips, the results were … not good. For the most part, the Blue Ridge clip above is representative - wooden and mechanical and technically slick in a way that expertly defines the term “perfectly uninteresting.” Somehow the aliveness that makes gospel music of this (and arguably any) era so good is lost in translation from stage to screen.
I suspect the biggest problem is that though the conceit of the film is that these are live performances in a small country church, they’re actually studio recordings with a visual element, so the performers are acting - very badly in most cases - like they’re performing for a live audience but have none of the visceral energy of a real live crowd to feed off. As a result, the performances largely come off as - indeed are - canned music sung to audiences as fake as the plastic smiles of vapid beatitude plastered on the singers’ faces.
The performances that come closest to coming alive are Doris Akers’, who seems to intuitively get how to perform for the camera:
She doesn’t seem so much to be playing to a fake audience; her style - the way she sings around the beat and ornaments her notes a la the black gospel improvisational live style - doesn’t demand so immediately that you suspend your disbelief and imagine some nonexistent person as the nonexistence object of her music. She manages to suggest that she’s singing to you personally, whoever you are, wherever you are watching and listening:
Update: Avery’s favorite (and perhaps only) Irish reader, Irishlad, chimes in with an astute observation:
Was it a case of White Gospel of the 60’s being synonymous with segregation that played a big part in keeping the film from gaining widespread popularity? Let’s face it Doris Ackers like Charlie Pride of the Country scene was the token Black of the genre.
A good point to be sure. In fact, it echoes after a fashion a point I was trying to make in that Religion Dispatches piece from earlier today: that there is something about the black gospel sound that conveys realness and immediacy and authenticity in a way that white gospel rarely seems to capture or convey to most mainstream audiences. Having spent a good deal of my life encountering and studying gospel music, I am increasingly persuaded that this difference between the reception of black and white gospel is as much about how the music is perceived as it is the formal characteristics that distinguish black from white (or in this case, traditional southern vs a hybrid black/white sound). And doubtless Irishlad is right to point to the political and cultural climate of the 60s: even if mainstream cinema tastes weren’t exactly celebrating an integrationist worldview, there certainly was a drift in Hollywood toward more racially integrated perspectives (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released a year after Sing a Song).
But that said, in the particular case of Sing a Song For Heaven’s Sake, my gut says the biggest obstacle to the movie’s fuller success was its own self-consciousness (most notably the lack of any real storytelling structure). These folks simply aren’t ready for primetime Hollywood, and probably never will, would, or should be. In short, this isn’t southern gospel. This is southern gospel singers performing a one-dimensional caricature of themselves, a caricature that approximates what they think mainstream audiences imagine something called gospel music ought to sound like when mostly white people sing it (the term “southern gospel” had no real currency or meaning in the 60s).
To the extent that this artificial, staged performance of one’s own culture doubtless arises in part from culturally southern evangelical whites’ awareness of themselves as being seen on the wrong side of history in terms of race in America, then we could probably see the film and/or its reception as a reflection of the race problem in the 60s. But there’s a more pervasive and deepset insecurity in play here, one that reflects the broader displacement of religious fundamentalism from the seat of cultural authority in mainstream America in the 1960s as it reacted to and came under the influence of counterculture influences.
Southern gospel (both professional mass-market music and paraprofessional convention singing) is, I’m glad to say, being taken more seriously as a cultural tradition and a form of religious expression worth studying and listening to meaningfully, even by people outside the southern gospel world (thanks in no small part to the work of scholars like Stephen Shearon, an occasional commenter around here). But it still seems to me that there’s often a difference between the way strangers to gospel music (whether black or southern white) listen to the former vs the latter. When they hear black gospel, there’s this sense of immediate recognition, if not identification, that they perceive as authentically American, or something close to it, even if the cultural context and lived experience from which black gospel music arises is foreign to these listeners. But southern gospel? It’s usually taken seriously only after people unfamiliar with it are able to treat it as a kind of folk music on steroids.Email this Post