PBS’ The Spirituals has Nashville Roots
By Janice Malone
The Tennessee Tribune
The new PBS documentary, The Spirituals transports viewers to a place and time they have never experienced while capturing the ensemble and their messages of hope and forgiveness in an inspiring and joyous documentary.
Through the use of classic traditional music from the internationally acclaimed American Spiritual Ensemble, interviews from expert historians, and excellent cinematography, viewers travel through the history of Africans in America, from the days of slavery, through the civil rights movement, to rousing modern day performances in the finest concert halls in Spain. Arizona based filmmakers Eren McGinnis and Ari Luis Palos new documentary offers a fresh approach to African American history, while clearly reiterating the unmistakable contribution of African born slaves and their descendants to our musical history. The Spirituals recently aired on WNPTTV and will be airing on several PBS stations in Kentucky and other cities around the country. Dr. Paul Kwami, the Musical Director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and Dr. Uzee Brown, Chairman of the Department of Music at Morehouse College, provided some of the historical context for the film. Dr. Hope Koehler, one of the singers of the American Spiritual Ensemble, is one of the featured speakers and performers in the film. Dr. Koehler, who previously lived in Nashville for 20 years, is now a professor a t t h e U n i v e r s i t y o f Wisconsin. She has concern for the survival of the classic spiritual music. “This is important music and it’s often being ignored,” says Dr. Koehler. “The classic Negro spiritual is such beautiful music. There’s really nothing quite like i t . A s a m e m b e r o f the American Spiritual Ensemble, part of what we do is to not only entertain, but to also educate our audiences on the value and the knowledge of this music throughout the world. The spiritual is so music emotionally gripping. It speaks to people in all languages.” More insight with the film maker of The Spirituals.
The Tribune: How and when did you first get involved with putting this documentary together?
E. McGinnis: “Everett McCorvey, who’s one of the stars of the film and he’s also the director of the American Spiritual Ensemble (Lexington, KY), was one of my neighbors for about 15 years. I’ve been a fan of his for years and I had previously worked with him on one of his previous projects. This helped to gain the trust among the various people that we needed to work with. So for years I had wanted to do a project about the history of this very special music. Finally, PBS gave us the money to do so and we started production.”
The Tribune: Was there anything in particular about the history of the Negro American spiritual that you were surprised to learn?
E. McGinnis: “There were all kinds of things. For example, I didn’t know so many of our long time classic songs were originally Negro spirituals. Such as When the Saints Go Marching In, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, We Shall Overcome, were all first spirituals. When you sit down and listen to the actual words of these songs it all makes sense. I worked on this film for a little over a year and along the way it gave me time to reflect on how horrible the environment must’ve been during the times when these songs were originally created. And also what the people and person who wrote them were experiencing. It brought forth a lot of emotions. The things I learned were heartbreaking and quite sorrowful for me to learn about. My film maker partner and I (Ari Luis Palos) are both Mexican Americans and he’s always had an avid interest in African American history. We both have the common interest in the topic so we felt that it was an honor to have the opportunity to work a film of this subject matter.”
The Tribune: Do you now have a personal favorite spiritual?
E. McGinnis: “I have so many now. One of the standouts is ‘Jesus Walk With Me.’ That song plays while the credits are rolling in our film. Almost every time I heard that song I would start crying. I would hear the lyrics and think about what they meant, so the lyrics did just touch my heart and spirit.”
The Tribune: There are several scenes in the documentary featuring very old church buildings, old graveyards and other places. Where did you film these places?
E. McGinnis: “We filmed all over the deep south areas of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, certain parts of Ohio. We shot some scenes at Fisk and Tennessee State University.”
The Tribune: What has your research indicated will be the future of the Negro spiritual?
E. McGinnis: “Unfortunately, I think a lot of spirituals are being lost and forgotten. During the time of segregated schools there was a real push into teaching kids about the importance of Negro American spirituals and African American history in general. One of the speakers in the film points out that integration brought a lot of good changes but on the other hand a lot of things were lost in the culture. In some churches old spirituals are still sung but when gospel music was introduced that was done to really attract younger audiences to the church because it was more lively. Some of the less known songs have already been lost. Some have endured and others will always be around. So I think the spirituals are in great danger of being lost if people such as the American Spiritual Ensemble don’t continue their efforts in keeping this great music alive.”
The Tribune: What is the reaction to the spirituals in other countries?
E. McGinnis: “It’s really amazing and different. Our camera crew followed the American Spiritual Ensemble to Spain for a performance. It was their tenth anniversary of performing in Spain. The reception was just amazing. When they perform here in the states the crowds are good but not as big as it was in Spain and other foreign countries. The performers were treated like rock stars. The 3,000 seat venue was packed. American Negro Spirituals are also very popular in Germany and France too.”
The Tribune: Your documentary recently aired here on WNPT television. Has it aired on any other stations?
E. McGinnis: “It’s aired some on a televisionstation in Kentucky because we did this project as a co-production with the PBS station in Lexington, KY. It will then be shown in other cities throughout the rest of the year and this will go on for the next three years with the film being shown on various PBS stations.”
The Tribune: Have you taken the film to any film festivals?
E. McGinnis: “We’re just starting to do that. We recently had a showing at the Arizona International Film Festival. We really want to hit the film festivals that are in the Deep South
The Tribune: So what’s the next project that you’re working on?
E. McGinnis: “I want to do a documentary about the life of my grandfather. He immigrated to America from Mexico during the 1950’s. The film will show why he left Mexico. It will be a historical documentary about his life but will also show another side of the immigration issue that’s so prevalent today. There’s a huge history of immigrants who’ve come to this country who have made some tremendous sacrifices when they made that decision to move here. It’s a lot more to it than just immigrants moving to America.”
For more information about The Spirituals visit www.dosvatos.com. The Spirituals companion musical soundtrack features performances by The American Spiritual Ensemble is also available at www.americanspiritualensemble.com.
TO ORDER A DVD OF THE SPIRITUALS VISIT: