America’s Music Series: A film history of our popular music from Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway (Six Sessions)

America's Music series presented at Coastal Carolina University

America’s Music series presented at Coastal Carolina University

Music has always been a part of my life.  Growing up with a mother who is a music teacher and growing up in a school system with an excellent music program, I learned to play multiple instruments, sung in multiple choirs, competed in State jazz competitions, and was exposed to amazing musicians and musical styles.  When I learned that Coastal Carolina University (CCU) had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to host a program series to examine the important American musical genres in the context of key social and historical developments, I knew I had to check it out!

The America’s Music series is a six-part program that features screenings of documentary films about major genres of 20th century American music, followed by an opportunity to discuss how the music has impacted our American culture and musical landscape.  CCU was also featuring live music performed by CCU music faculty and students at the end of each program.

Honestly, I was excited about the documentary and live performance parts, but was a little skeptical of the “scholarly discussion” that was to take place.  Kelly met me at Johnson Auditorium on the CCU campus, a small auditorium with a stage and white screen set up for the documentaries.  As we entered the auditorium we were handed an 8.5X11 piece of paper with seven “Discussion Points” on it and a list of the dates of the remaining five sessions.

The film series and the schedule of events to follow were explained about three times throughout the two hour session, which was a little redundant and wordy.  But at least we knew what to expect.  A long (I would say about 7 minute) essay was read to us that detailed some of the history of the genres of blues and gospel music.  The essay assumed that the audience knew at least some previous knowledge of the styles, musical structure, and musicians of the time.  Both Kelly and I agreed that we would have liked to have the essay in paper format, possibly handed to us as we entered the venue, so that we could read it on our own as we waited for the event to start.  We found it a bit hard to follow and keep our attention.  But the parts we did follow were interesting, factual, and gave us a bit of a lead-in to the documentaries focusing on blues and gospel music.

The first documentary, Feel Like Going Home: Episode 1, is director Martin Scorsese’s lyrical journey into the landscape and origin of the blues.  It introduced us to recordings and footage captured by John and Alan Lomax in the ’30s and ’40s in an effort to document the disappearing music and history of the Mississippi Delta.  It introduced the great early blues masters Son House, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and John Lee Hooker.

The second documentary, Say Amen, Somebody, considered a cinema verite’ classic, features Willie Mae Ford Smith, Thomas A. Dorsey, and Sallie Martin, three pioneers of the Golden Age of Gospel Music.

The leaders of the America’s Music series told us that the NEH grant prescribed which sections of the documentaries CCU was supposed to show us, so we were only able to see about 20 minutes of each documentary.  I would have liked to view the entire documentary Feel Like Going Home.  We were told that after the film series was over Kimbel Library on the CCU campus would house all of the featured documentaries for the public to check out at will.

After the documentaries were over there was a 10 minute intermission.  I took this opportunity to read Kelly the “Discussion Points” to see what kind of silly answers we could come up with.  We actually started to debate some of the question/answers/issues that the points brought up.  When everyone sat back down many of the audience members brought up points about the similarities between blues and gospel music: the formal chord structures, improvisation concepts, similar instrumentation and rhythm structures.  The group talked about how gospel music was initially considered “sinful” because it was born from the blues, which was the musical style sung in bars.  But also how the blues was born out of the cotton fields and real-world experiences and hardships of that time.  Hence the scholarly discussion part of the series.  I will admit I found this more interesting than I ever anticipated it to be.

The night ended with a performance by the Coastal Inspirational Ambassadors (C.I.A), an organization at CCU that “seeks to perpetuate the tradition of gospel music and to recognize the importance of gospel in the preservation of African-American history.” This group is amazing! They were accompanied by a grand piano and drum set on stage.  They sang four songs, clapping rhythms, and interjecting facts about the gospel movement between songs.  My favorite performance might have been their three renditions of “Amazing Grace:”  The “Presbyterian” way, the way one of the member’s African American mother had taught her, and then a way that encouraged audience participation.  Kelly and I both agreed that we got chills during some of their soulful songs.  The live music was definitely my favorite part of the evening!

Cost: Free Admission.  The America’s Music series continues throughout April and features music through the years, highlighting the history of how America’s music of today was influenced.  All sessions are from 7 to 9pm and will be held at Johnson Auditorium on the Coastal Carolina University campus.
Session 2: Broadway & Tin Pan Alley on February 10th
Session 3: Swing Jazz on February 24th
Session 4: Country & Bluegrass on March 24th
Session 5: Latin Rhythms from Mambo to Hip Hop on April 7th
Session 6: Rock n’ Roll on April 21st