May 9th, 2008

Title: Great Debaters: Music From & Recorded for the Motion Picture

Artists: Various

Label: Atlantic Records

Catalog No.: 396860

Date: 2007

Alvin Youngblood Hart, one of the key players on Otis Taylor’s recently released CD Recapturing the Banjo (reviewed in the March issue), is also central to the soundtrack of the Denzel Washington film, The Great Debaters, which tells an untold story of Black Americans in the 1930s. The film centers around a Texas Negro College’s debating team, coached by charismatic poet and communist agitator Melvin Tolson, played by Washington, and their historic victory over Harvard University. Scott Barretta’s notes indicate that “Washington [who directed the film] was looking for authentic material – whether blues, jazz, gospel, or country – that best suited the film.”

Indeed the soundtrack does offer a variety of musical styles, leading off with the strong and stirring “My Soul Is A Witness,” a contemporary take on a “ring shout” rendered on acoustic guitar and djembe (West African drum) and cajon (Afro-Peruvian box drum). Built around the repetition of the title phrase, and given call and response antiphony by Hart and soul singer Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings fame), “My Soul Is A Witness,” comes as close as anything to recreating the musical frenzy of Austin Coleman’s original. This opening track demonstrates with passion that while the music may be informed by historic “authenticity,” it is anything but a dusty museum piece.

Throughout The Great Debaters Hart, leading on acoustic guitar and vocals, shares the spotlight with Jones as well as Memphis guitarist Teenie Hodges, The Angelic Voices of Faith gospel chorus, and North Carolina string-band revivalists The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Together they create a vibrate patchwork of music, both sacred and secular, somber and exuberant, that powers along like a freight train. “Step It Up and Go” sets the tone with a finger popping country-blues, and “It’s Tight Like That” showcases Jones’s smoky vocals on a soulful reinterpretation of a early “hokum” standard by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom (aka Thomas Dorsey). Another standout is “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You,” a song made popular in the 1930s as a guitar/fiddle duo by the Mississippi Sheiks (who had a bestseller with “Sittin’ On Top of the World”). Here it is given full string band treatment by The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Hart, who capture the spirit of the music without loosing the historical value and without compromising the rather arcane lyrics.

While filled with images from the film, the liner notes take the reader step-by-step through the history of each song and the basis for its inclusion in an effort to flush out the soundscape of the period. It should also be mentioned that two historical recordings are included, Marion Anderson singing Handel’s “Begrussung,” and Art Tatum’s “The Shout.” While differing musically from most of the acoustic blues, country, and jazz tunes, they are no less a part of that diverse soundscape.

It’s a shame that The Great Debaters project came together as a soundtrack that will inevitably limit its shelf life once the public has forgotten the largely forgettable film. In a just world The Great Debaters soundtrack would be experiencing the same unprecedented success as the O Brother, Where Art Thou album/phenomenon. Yet at the same time it’s heartening to see such revivalism taking place, where tradition isn’t left behind, but also isn’t doggedly adhered to by limiting the abilities and tastes of creative artists, or by assumptions regarding the limited tastes of listeners.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

Review Genre(s): African American Culture & History,Folk and Country,Gospel Music and Spirituals,Soundtracks and Spoken Word


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