If you listen to Alice Gerrard perform you can follow the music home to its roots.
If you watch the documentary about her life produced by Sneads native and Chipola College grad Ashley Melzer, you can accompany Gerrard a ways as she, family, friends and associates recall the rambling journeys it called her to in a life still focused, at 85, on obeying, recording and preserving its voice and images.
The documentary “You Gave Me a Song” makes its local premier on Thursday, Feb. 27 at Melzer’s first college alma mater. It will be shown at 7 p.m. in the Prough Center for the Arts on the Chipola campus. And Melzer will stick around for a Q&A after the credits roll.
Gerrard sometimes accompanies Melzer as she shares the film in various places, but her schedule would not allow it this time around. The film has already crisscrossed the documentary trail, accepted from a field of much competition for showings in more than a dozen of those most respected and coveted venues.
Gerrard reveres the old-timey stuff, like Carter family tunes, roots blues, folk and bluegrass. She was a friend of Bill Monroe, the father of that last genre, of Elizabeth Cotten in blues, and many other icons of music. From the start, she felt it was important to keep playing their music forward, and to shoot images and performances of Monroe, Cotten, and of countless others over the years so that their work and their art would not fade from use.
Her home, a loosely organized space in Durham, North Carolina, is a treasure trove from that mission. And in recent years it yielded, from the back of a closet, some old long-forgotten reel-to-reel practice sessions of her own. They were brought forward for restoration and some selections were pulled for release in 2018 on a CD that received favorable reviews. Those originals were not recorded in a sound-proof booth. In the background, you can sometimes hear the echoes of children’s laughter, words and movement through the house where she and one-time musical partner Hazel Dickens practiced so often in their years together. That one was called “Sing Me Back Home: The D.C. Tapes, 1965-1969.”
The documentary goes back to Gerrard’s earliest adult days in music and life, back to the life she shared with her first husband, himself a dedicated musician, and their children. Think early hippies. Think “free-range” parenting and “free-range” youngsters that had to make the best of their parents’ frequent absences on the road. It also provides a glimpse in to the struggles Gerrard would face as a widow when she lost that great love of her life.
He’d introduced her to the woman in whom she would find a kindred spirit for a time, Hazel Dickens. That partnership was part of what pulled Gerrard through those difficult times. Emmylou Harris called the music they made together “so washed in the blood, so real.”
The film tells how the two met, how they opened for other women the door to bluegrass, a genre that had largely been a boys’ club until they arrived and broke down the barrier.
It wasn’t just the fact that theirs were almost the only feminine voices in bluegrass that set them apart. Their delivery was different, too. Instead of the almost frantic pace so often set by male-dominated bands of the time, the women slowed the music down and simplified the instrumentation—just a guitar and sometimes an autoharp or banjo were their common accompaniments.
The film also shows how the two and a crew of fellow musicians across many styles teamed up and crossed the country and its color lines in a time when it could be dangerous to do so.
It also provides some insight into the things that eventually fractured the Gerrard/Dickens bond forever.
The film also recalls the work for which Gerrard earned a Grammy nomination, at age 80, for the CD she released in 2014, “Follow the Music.”
It also talks about the magazine/newsletter she founded, the “Old Time Herald,” which featured traditional music.
You can see for yourself what Emmylou Harris meant in calling Gerrard and Dickens work “so washed in the blood,” and find out more about Gerrard in Melzer’s Q&A following the showing of the film.
The daughter of Dr. James Melzer and Connie Melzer of Sneads, the producer now makes her home in and unleashes her own creative forces upon Durham.
It was there that she joined forces with the director-producer Kenny Dalsheimer to help put together “You Gave Me a Song: The Life and Music of Alice Gerrard.”
With a master’s degree in Folklore from UNC-Chapel Hill and a bachelor’s in Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California, Melzer has been a favorite collaborator with UNC professor and mentor William Farris on previous music-based projects. It was through their association that she met and began working with Dalsheimer.
The doc runs a few minutes short of two hours.