EOL video review: US Sacred Traditions

EOL video review

The JVC/Smithsonian Folkways
Video Anthology of Music and Dance of the Americas

3. The United States: Sacred Traditions

Producer: The Victor Company of Japan, Ltd., Director:HIROAKI OHTA, Co-Producer: STEPHEN McARTHUR, Associate Producer: HIROSHI YOSHIDA, Executive Producers: KATSUMORI ICHIKAWA & YUJI ICHIHASHI. Video/color, 43:02 (this tape).

Editorial supervisor (books): TOMOAKI FUJI, Senior Editor: ANTHONY SEEGER, Editor (books): MARK GREENBERG.

Booklet notes (this volume) by Mark Greenberg, Barbara Hampton, and Adrienne Kaeppler.

1995. Distributors: Multicultural Media, RR 3, Box 6655, Granger Road, Barre, Vermont 05641 USA, and Smithsonian Folkways, 955 L'Enfant Plaza, suite 7300, Washington DC 20560


Volume 3, "The United States Sacred Traditions," focuses on African American sacred music and also includes a study of European sacred music. Because the volume is from an anthology, I anticipated a generic treatment of the music, and a claim to exhaust the entire history of African American sacred music in America, but this was not the case. Anthony Seeger states that material included outlines the general development of African American sacred music, and it does just that. The video does not attempt to trace a detailed evolution and development of the music, but does provide an adequate overview.

The video contains eleven examples of performances by artists, choirs and musicians in the southeastern United States. Performances are all filmed live in church settings or concert halls; however, there is no narration and very little or no dialogue. During each example, a number appears in the left-hand corner of the screen which corresponds with a number in an accompanying booklet. The booklet gives a brief explanation regarding the type of music performed, the performers, etc. The number system is helpful, but a frame listing the style of music, the performer, and the name of the song in the video itself would remind the audience of important information to remember. Without this, the viewer must constantly refer to the booklet.

Following an abbreviated introduction in the booklet by Anthony Seeger, a section called "How to Use this Video" defines the intended uses of the video and booklet. Barbara Hampton then initiates the discussion of African American sacred music, and does an excellent job in briefly presenting the history of the pre-emancipation period (1865-1945), the post-emancipation period (1865-1945), and the post-war period (since 1945), to demonstrate the use and changes of sacred music in the African American community. Her selections for suggested readings and recordings are solid resources to assist anyone desiring additional information. Hampton guides the audience through the video with enough information to understand the music, and is never overbearing.


Video 3-11
Contemporary Gospel, "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus," Dr. Bobby Jones and New Life

160x120, 7 sec, 600K QuickTime

320x240, 20 sec, 5.1MB QuickTime

Full-frame still, 46K JPG


For the most part, the choices of the artists for each type of music are appropriate, but Dr. Bobby Jones and New Life do not adequately represent contemporary gospel. In the video (3-11), the group performs "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus," a song that most contemporary gospel artists would consider old. Bobby Jones and New Life employ a non-traditional style, but since the mid-eighties, a plethora of groups and artists have the stormed the world of contemporary gospel music. They too, employ contemporary instruments, but the contemporary style contains strong influences of rhythm and blues, funk, jazz fusion, and rap. John P. Kee and New Life, Yolanda Adams, Daryl Coley, and Commissioned are better representatives of contemporary gospel music.
Video 3-8
Traditional Gospel,
"Precious Lord,"
Rev. Al Green

160x120, 8 sec, 700K QuickTime

320x240, 19 sec, 4.9MB QuickTime

Full-frame still, 52K JPG


Comparison of two groups, one African American and one European-American:

Reverend Al Green gives an excellent example of traditional gospel in his rendition of Thomas Dorsey's "Precious Lord." The tempo is free, and there is classic call and response between the singer and the congregation (3-8).





Video 3-17
Bluegrass Gospel, "I'm Working on a Building," Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys

160x120, 7 sec, 600K QuickTime

320x240, 16 sec, 4MB QuickTime

Full-frame still, 53K JPG


Although the booklet does not discuss the relationship or contrasts between African American and European Sacred music, one can see obvious influences. The gospel quartets and quintets demonstrate similarities. Each uses four or five part harmony, with a tenor singing the melody, and the bass providing a solid bottom. Both European and African American groups employ electric guitar, bass, and sometimes drums. European groups may use fiddles, banjos, and mandolins (3-17).
The video and the booklet are informative, but there are some gaps. There is no discussion of what the performers experience or think when singing, composing, or arranging. The only contact the audience has with them is through the writing of Hampton, which reveals only a historical dimension. Valuable information concerning the relationship between the artists and the music is lost without some type of on-screen dialogue. For many of the performers, this music is a major part of their lives, but we do not hear them express this verbally. Without dialogue, the music becomes a lifeless organism being studied under a microscope.

The treatment of the subject matter, and the composition of the video suggest that the primary audiences are junior high and high school students. This is an excellent introduction to African American Sacred Music to be employed in a general music course or seminar. The suggested reading and listening provide additional information for anyone desiring further study.

The format for the examples of European sacred music tradition is essentially the same as the African American study, but the writer is Mark Greenberg. This section is also concise and informative. With the excellent presentation of African American and European sacred music in the video and booklet, I do not understand why there is no discussion of the influences and similarities between the two. The volume would be much stronger if there were some discussion of the obvious influences, similarities and difference. Without dialogue, the video presents the music as African American versus European. For additional examples of contemporary gospel music, I would refer readers to Kirk Franklin's "The Reason Why We Sing," or Yolanda Adams "Through the Storm."

The video is an excellent introduction to African American Sacred music, especially if supplemented with additional examples.

reviewed by Theodore Burgh

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