Of all the things our supposedly superior brains give us over our animal counterparts, perhaps the most enviable is our capacity for a joy of performance. There are some who believe that horses know they are racing each other or that dogs understand they are in a competition, but I don’t know if that’s true. I do know, however, that the gospel singers in George Nierenberg’s Say Amen, Somebody (1983) understand exactly how good they are, but more than that, how thankful they should be that sounds like these are even possible.
The documentary mainly tells the story of a pair of St. Louis gospel singers, Willie May Ford Smith, 79, and Professor Thomas A. Dorsey, 83, and their extraordinary careers at the forefront of the gospel movement and their participation in a gospel music festival, but to me it’s really about the need and the bliss of creating music. Watch as Dorsey and his business partner, Sallie Martin, listen to one of his old recordings; he can’t help but accompany himself, the music can’t help but burst out of him.
The fact that singing and music are such spiritual experiences makes it natural to be used as an arm for religion, but the movie is only evangelical about personal expression. It’s a movie about the exuberance of creation, especially in some of the most unlikely of places. Many of these singers don’t have much to celebrate, but they do just the same because they can. It’s interesting to see how many of the singers’ stories include a love of singing first and a calling to religion second, and rarely the other way around. Dorsey and Smith were secular blues singers in their youth before they decided to ply their craft in the service of the Lord.
Smith is a fairly incredible woman. In music for sixty years, she’s put up with racism and the church’s initial distrust of bluesy singing, and her own grandson remarks casually that women shouldn’t be ministers at all. “We’re good enough to clean your clothes and cook your food; why can’t we do your preaching?” He doesn’t have a good answer to that.
More than anything, however, the movie is happy to be no more than a vehicle for these amazing performers. Besides Smith and Dorsey, we hear recordings from years past, performances from some of the current leaders of the movements. Songs are sung in great churches, in cramped basements, around the dinner table. This is not a very good record of the history of gospel music; it’s too impressed with the sound to slow down to give facts and dates (in fact, even the pioneers can’t agree on the origins of certain things), but it is an astonishing record of the importance of gospel music, the place it occupies in the souls of the performers and the communities. I can’t help but come back to an enraptured listener, covered in sweat in the Missouri heat, wearing a thick three-piece suit because anything less would be an insult to these amazing sounds.
Nierenberg, who specializes in music documentaries wonderfully captures both the sound and the feeling of the performances. His camera is active as the music demands, and even in unsatisfactory conditions the music is recorded as if for a concert film. His movie feels alive; it pulsates with the rhythm of the performers. There is an undercurrent that suggests the strength-providing power of this music as we notice that Smith looks younger than her daughter, or when Dorsey, who, because of his age, is questionable to make an appearance at the convention, gingerly approaches the stage on his walker then delivers a hymn of almost youthful exuberance. It’s a variation of the theatrics James Brown used to pull, except here it seems genuine.
Say Amen, Somebody is a joy; it’s pure happiness. There’s some discussion of the negative sides, including Smith’s conversation with her narrow-minded grandson, and a moment when a blossoming singer’s dream of touring Europe is put in jeopardy because of her husband’s insistence that she stay at his congregation, but the movie seems to argue that if we as a species can produce these sounds, any inconveniences are minor. Dorsey tells of the week when he lost both his wife and child and how that led to him to writing one of the most important songs of his career, paradoxically titled “Precious Lord.” Some people simply have goodness in them that needs to get out.