The Memphis Music Scene & Making Human Connections to Music Through Take Me to the River
“The beautiful thing about music is that it reaches across generations, across races, across countries.” - Jerry Harrison.
This is a guest post by Esther M. Morgan-Ellis, Secretary, IASPM-US & Assistant Professor of Music, University of North Georgia and describes our recent Take Me to the River film screening and panel discussion.
On Thursday evening, February 23, the Foster Theater at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was filled to capacity for a presentation of the 2014 documentary Take Me to the River. The screening inaugurated the 2017 Hall of Fame Film Series and marked the celebration of Black History Month, but it also served as the opening event for the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, U.S. Branch (IASPM-US), whose members convened at Case Western Reserve University for a weekend of research papers, addresses, and discussion.
As Secretary for IASPM-US, I came to the film screening almost directly from our executive meeting, where conversation had centered on the Association’s interest in facilitating more public events and using our conferences to engage directly with local museums and audiences. The Hall of Fame event that evening could not have offered a better model for public engagement and educational outreach, and it was an inspirational start to our conference.
It was immediately clear that the Hall of Fame didn’t need us to stage a successful event. Most of the attendees were locals, and half again were members of the museum. Martin Shore, the director of the film, introduced Take Me to the River as a story about the power of communication to foster cooperation and, eventually, collaboration. The message of the film, in his words, is that “we are better together.”
The documentary explores the development of popular music in Memphis, but not primarily through interviews or historical footage. Instead, Shore and his collaborators bring together three (or sometimes four) generations of Memphis musicians in a series of sessions to talk, share ideas, jam, and record. One product of these sessions was an album, which is available independently from the film, but the documentary adds extraordinary depth to this collection of innovative covers. When asked why he chose to document the Memphis music scene, Shore simply responded, “This story hadn’t been told properly.”
Some of the participants were on hand to discuss their experience after the screening, including blues musician Bobby Rush, rappers Al Kapone and Frayser Boy, and Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads. My one disappointment with the evening was the paucity of female protagonists on screen and their total absence from the stage. The only female performer featured in the film was Mavis Staples, who created one of the most captivating scenes and sang under the closing credits.
The marginalization of the film’s young women—all of whom appeared only as backup singers—was made all the more striking by the dozen or so young men who took the spotlight to rap, play their instruments, converse with the older musicians, and respond to interview questions. Although no one at the screening asked about the gender imbalance, Shore did explain that he and his collaborators didn’t work to recruit specific performers. They decided that it was most important for participants to be enthusiastic about the project—a strategy that might help to explain the total dominance of male performers in the film.
The panel discussion was fascinating and greatly enriched the experience. Although it is generally understood that older soul and blues musicians do not always appreciate hip-hop, the film largely passed over any generational conflict (with the exception of a rolled eye or two).
Onstage, however, Rush and the younger musicians were quick to address their mutual misunderstandings and to describe the insight that they had gained from working together. “A lot of times I feel, like, that singers will look at rappers probably as not being as talented,” said Al Kapone, “and after talking to them, and they get a chance to talk to us, they start to see the real people in us, you know, and the real passion that we do have for music, we just do it a different way.”
All of the panelists reported a reciprocal learning experience. “He opened up his world to me and I was able to open up my world to him,” said Frayser Boy, regarding his collaboration with Rush. When asked what he had taken away from the project, Frayser Boy had an answer that must have pleased the older musician: “I learned that live instruments sound better.” Harrison appears in the film, not as a performer but instead as a producer. He worked with Shore on Take Me to the River throughout the process in an Executive Producer role.
“It’s the beautiful thing about music,” Harrison reflected, “is that it reaches across generations, across races, across countries.” He concluded, “This is the movie for parents to show their kids, you know, ’cause this is mutual respect.”
Both panelists and audience members repeatedly observed that this film is about and for communities. “Watch it with friends,” advised Harrison, and his point was well taken. The story is punctuated with moments of humor, despair, loss, and deep personal connection. There was a lot of laughter in the theater, but the comedy in Take Me to the River lightens a narrative interwoven with topics of racism, corruption, and hate.
The dramatic climax comes when Memphis bursts into riot and flame after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For the most part, however, the film is driven by toe-tapping music. The soundtrack is best enjoyed in the company of music lovers, and the Foster Theater audio system certainly did it justice. Several attendees remarked that they had seen the film at home, but that it was even better in a crowded theater—not because of the big screen, but because Take Me to the River tells the story of human connection facilitated by music.
The panel discussion only served to underscore that fact. “I thank God for you,” Rush told the audience, “for lovin’ what I do and lovin’ what I stand for.” He reminded us that his music doesn’t just speak to community. It relies on community to survive.