Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Say Amen, Somebody: A Review



It is surprising to learn that gospel music, now seen as standard in mostly African-American churches, was not only looked down on but actively discouraged by the Church. Say Amen, Somebody is the documentary about this American artform and two of its founding figures. A joyful feature with uplifting music, Say Amen, Somebody would make believers out of even the hardest of atheists.

Director George Nierenberg follows Professor Thomas A. Dorsey, credited as the Father of Gospel Music, and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, a Dorsey protégé and gospel elder stateswoman. Professor Dorsey reflects on how difficult it was to get pep into spirituals if memory serves right. The older generation, wary of Dorsey's early life as a blues performer and songwriter, thought he was corrupting the sacredness of hymns with his work. Both he and Mother Smith bristle at the idea that they were bringing blues to the church. 

They saw their work in music as genuine ministry, so much so that Mother Smith would not go commercial either in record sales or attempt to sing secular songs. This puts her in stark contrast to two of her contemporaries: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, who did one or both. Mother Smith's devotion to the Lord is so great that she sees nothing wrong with female pastors. 

Both Dorsey and Smith may or may not attend the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses that year as both are in physical decline. They, however, will not be denied, summoning up their strength for one more convention to sing out and continue training the next generation to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.

Say Amen, Somebody is first and foremost a celebration of gospel music. Even at age 77, Mother Smith is still a dynamic performer, singing glory to her Savior no matter what the venue. Late in the film, we see her balancing a microphone in one hand and her walker with the other. She will keep going, her faith and joyful spirit infectious. 

She takes her singing seriously, such as when she gives advice and training to various singers both in seminars and one-on-one. Mother Smith is also mother in other ways, such as with the Barrett Sisters or Zella Jackson Price. They are her own proteges who face the pull-and-push between going on the road and caring for their families.

Mother Smith's own children reflect on that struggle when visiting a dilapidated train station where their mother would leave and arrive from a tour. While proud of her and aware that she was fulfilling a mission, they cannot help but miss the time they could have had with Willie Mae Ford Smith, their mother. 

Mother Smith makes clear to Zella that there is a cost to sing to and for the Lord. While she does not say this to any of the Barrett Sisters directly, we see the struggle is there too. Say Amen, Somebody features our singers at home too, which are among the best moments in the film. Delois Barrett, who also sings in her husband's church, talks with him at breakfast about an opportunity to tour Europe.

While it will be a brief tour, she is eager and excited for the opportunity that she has both worked hard for and wanted. Pastor Frank, however, is not as enthusiastic, seeing it as almost selfish of her to be away from the home church. As she contemplates things, she asks Frank at one point, "You want eggs with your sausage?", bringing the domestic into the spiritual.

Say Amen, Somebody touches on an issue that I think still is relevant in both gospel and what is known as Contemporary Christian music. Simply put, it is the conflict between worship and performance. Where is the line between saving souls and making money, between seeing gospel music as a way to reach people for Christ and as a vehicle for worldly success?

Mother Smith and another group at her tribute, the O'Neil Twins, make clear that they are not in gospel music for the money. They see it as their ministry. They paid a price for not venturing into commercial music, even within gospel circles, but they see it as their mission field.

The other major figure, that of Professor Dorsey, is more analytical. He does not sing as much as Mother Smith. However, he is just as moving. His telling of how, through great personal tragedy, he came to write the gospel hymn Take My Hand, Precious Lord is deeply moving. As he talks about his shift from blues to gospel after a spiritual awakening, he looks around and says, "Say amen, somebody," with a slight twinkle and laugh while waiting for his own call-and-response.

He too is seen at the end of Say Amen, Somebody in a walker as he marches forward to the stage (a gospel tradition Dorsey created). It is a wonderful moment, full of life and joy that praise can give.

It should go without saying that Say Amen, Somebody has great gospel music. From Mother Smith performing to a group of seniors to her tribute down to the Convention floor, it is all but impossible not to tap your foot and smile as we get beautiful musical moments.

"Remember me, not just for me, but for the work I've done," Mother Smith quotes from a Professor Dorsey song. Say Amen, Somebody shows that while they have entered into the Kingdom, their work definitely lives on.


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