About the Movie:
"Awake, My Soul" is a feature documentary that explores the history, music, and traditions of Sacred Harp singing, the oldest surviving American music. While often linked only to its history, (e.g. the songs were used in the recent historical films "Cold Mountain" and "Gangs of New York") this haunting music has survived over 200 years tucked away from sight in the rural deep south, where in old wooden country churches, devoted singers break open The Sacred Harp, a shape note hymnal first published in Georgia in 1844. These singers have inherited The Sacred Harp and its traditions from those who came before them and preserved these fierce yet beautiful songs, many of which are much older than the hymnal itself. And so they, like the early singers, begin each song by intoning syllables which are represented by each shaped note in their hymnal: fa, sol, la, and mi. To the casual observer, it is some foreign, unintelligible language, but to these Sacred Harp singers, it is the key that unlocks mysteries: songs of both beauty and sorrow, of life and of death, songs that cause feet to stomp and tears to flow, often at the same time. They are ancient sounds, which are at times disorienting to the modern ear, and yet they are sung with such passion and force that it becomes obvious that these songs are very much alive. Awake My Soul is a film that captures both the history and the vitality of a music that is utterly unlike any music most viewers are likely to have heard.
Insofar as Sacred Harp is among the earliest music in America, its history is incredibly rich. The narrative that emerges in this history is full of inspiring stories and of conflict, mostly with the cultural elites. In this way, the Sacred Harp tradition can be seen as being, on one hand conservative, in that it has preserved these old songs, and on the other hand, subversive, in that it has consistently repelled any attempts to tame or change it by the cultural and musical elites.
What is most moving about "Awake, My Soul", however, is the singers themselves who wear their hearts on their sleeves when it comes to the songs they sing. These singers are surprisingly articulate, deeply thoughtful and often very funny individuals who are passionate about Sacred Harp singing. As Richard Delong puts it in the film, "We scheduled life around Sacred Harp singing. We didn't schedule Sacred Harp singing around life."
Over the course of 7 years, two Atlanta filmmakers, Erica and Matt Hinton, have painstakingly amassed hundreds of hours of traditional Sacred Harp singings in the southeast as well as interviews with the most prominent traditional Sacred Harp singers and composers.
"Awake, My Soul" is a wonderfully detailed quilt made up of historical material illustrated by rare archival images, interviews with singers who share their often moving personal histories, and the music itself, which is both earthy and otherworldly at the same time. It once was lost but now it's found: This is the story of the Sacred Harp.
Producer/ Director's Statement
I discovered Sacred Harp singing in 1991. At a concert in Atlanta, I heard about an upcoming "shaped note" singing that was being held about in North Georgia. As I approached the Primitive Baptist Church where the singing was held, I could already hear voices. It was the sound, not of a choir, but of people singing. People with flaws and without perfect pitch, but meaning every word of it: "Serve with a single heart and eye, and to Thy glory live or die." I immediately felt transported. What can I call this experience? Overwhelmed. There is a sense in which this moment informed the entire making of ""Awake, My Soul"". It became my desire for others to experience this moment as well. Ever since, I have tried to convince my friends that if they will only drive 45 minutes, their minds will be blown. Yet, 45 minutes is a tall order evidently. I decided if they will not come to a singing, I must bring the singing to them. And so, if no one else was willing to step up and make a movie so I can blow my friends' minds, I suppose we must do it. There are some who claim that in documentary filmmaking, the filmmaker must be an objective observer. If this is so, we are not documentary filmmakers. My desire is to manipulate the emotions of the viewer. I like to be manipulated. It's fun. (or, perhaps, interesting) It is not exploitation: It is simply the enjoyment of watching others, dumbfounded by this haunting music, by those men in tears, by that boy studying the old woman's hand. Film is, after all, a medium of communication. The goal of our film is to communicate ideas, on one hand. But on the other hand, we wanted to communicate a feeling.
As it happens, the ideas we wanted to communicate were fascinating. The history and details of this rich tradition could easily fill a 5 part series. After all, it is the earliest American musical tradition extant. We had hundreds of years of this story to draw from and as much as 200 hours of footage. The embarrassment of riches that is inherent in this musical tradition is not without problems, however. We wanted to make the most accessible film possible, which meant making difficult choices in order to keep it under 2 hours. Do we explore the various competing editions of the book? Do we tell the story of the black Sacred Harp singers of Alabama, or the northern singers who have picked up the book? But these are subjects that deserve their own films, rather than occupying a mere chapter in this one. We had to kill our darlings, as they say.
In order to communicate the feeling, we simply had to present the music and the singers as truthfully as we could- without fast edits or a stylized look. And yet, it certainly has a timeless feel: Well worn, like the music and singers.
- Matt Hinton