by Christopher M. Pate
Television viewers across the nation are being introduced this month to a Kentucky-made documentary that tells the story of lyrics that were strong enough to carry a people through slavery and into freedom.
The lyrics kept the slaves’ hands moving as they toiled in fields, picking cotton under the blazing sun 100 years before the March on Washington, singing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” The lyrics kept their eyes on the prize as they prepared to escape their masters, singing, “Steal away home.”
And the lyrics spoke of pain, suffering and overcoming it all with such versatility that filmmakers Eren McGinnis and Ari Palos, both of whom “lived in Kentucky for a very long time,” McGinnis says, were compelled to produce and direct The Spirituals, a documentary tracing the birth and development of “sorrow songs” among African-American slaves.
The Kentucky Educational Television production, which also features the Lexington-based American Spiritual Ensemble, is having its national premiere on PBS stations this month. Although KET has shown the film several times, it will rebroadcast The Spirituals this week and next to coincide with the national broadcasts.
The Spirituals reveals the history of the art form and follows the ensemble as it travels the world in hopes of keeping the musical legacy of the African-American slave alive.
McGinnis, the producer, and Palos, the director, spent a year researching, touring with the American Spiritual Ensemble and traveling the South “in search of the home-grown sound,” McGinnis says.
On one trip, McGinnis and Palos found Central Baptist Church in Gastonia, N.C. The singing “was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen,” says McGinnis, who thinks anybody who listens to American music can find the Negro spiritual of value.
“The whole process was amazing and enriched our lives in many ways,” Palos says.
While traveling with the ensemble, the duo also heard the group sing live. McGinnis says everyone should have that experience.
Everett McCorvey, professor of voice at the University of Kentucky since 1991 and director of UK Opera Theatre, founded the ensemble in 1994. The group began touring in 1995 and performed its first concert in Spain.
McCorvey formed the “very, very special group with some amazing singers,” about one-third of whom are from Lexington, to perform the songs after noticing that “traditional Negro spirituals were not being performed as much” and feeling it was “too important a tradition to be lost,” he says.
Since its inception, the ensemble has toured 11 times and performed more than 100 concerts, McCorvey says.
He says he is excited about the broadcast of the documentary and is “very excited that the art form of the spiritual is featured in this way.”
Ensemble member Ann Grundy, who says she considers singing with the group “an honor of honors,” agrees with McCorvey.
“For a number of reasons, we have lost these songs,” she says. “Until the world, specifically America, gets a handle on this incredible history, then none of us will ever move forward in a healthy manner.”
She adds, “The story of America cannot be told without a thorough examination of the African history, and at the center are the spirituals: a gold mine of the African presence in America. … This is an incredible work on the part of the filmmakers and Dr. McCorvey.”
“The film provides a great service in terms of shedding light and understanding.”
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