Before the rise of mass media, music often filled the role occupied today by newspapers and TV. Songs, easily learned and transferred from bearer to bearer, were frequently used to commemorate historical events and convey news. With the onset of satellite link-ups, computer transmissions, and wire services, though, the tradition has been rendered all but irrelevantif not extinct.
In her own way, Nashville songwriter and filmmaker Candace Anderson brings this ancient tradition to modern audiences, using songs, theater and modern technology to illuminate the past. Anderson is perhaps best known for her performance piece The Perfect 36 (not to be confused with the Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s production of the same name), a multimedia presentation that depicts Tennessee’s role in the battle for women’s suffrage through music, archival photographs, and excerpts from diaries and letters. After two years of development, Anderson filmed the production for public television, and it aired earlier this month on WDCN-Channel 8.
In her new hour-long project, Anderson takes a similarly kaleidoscopic approach to the Tennessee Bicentennial. Entitled Through a Woman’s Voice: Ten Women From Tennessee, the production examines two centuries of history through the viewpoint of 10 Tennessee women of diverse backgrounds, periods, regions, cultures and classes.
The result, due to be produced onstage and filmed in 16mm later this year for public television, will feature archival material as well as songs written and performed by Anderson. In addition, a group of musicians, including mandolinist George Pearce and violinist Antoine Silverman, will provide music that reflects each woman’s background. The main source for the lyrics will be the women’s own journals, stories, poems and letters, which Anderson researched in local and state archives.
“I try to use as much of a woman’s written word as I can find,” says Anderson, a Michigan native who previously produced specials for Michigan public radio and television. “These are portraits. If [my subjects] ever heard the portrait, I’d like them not to be mortified.”
The subjects Anderson has chosen form a fascinating group. Some are well known, like the renowned blues singer Bessie Smith, who figures prominently in the production. Others also contributed to the musical history of the nation as well as the state; these include Ella Shepherd, an original member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers who sang for the crowned heads of Europe after the Civil War, and Zilphia Horton, the Monteagle social activist who helped transform “We Shall Overcome” into the anthem of the civil rights movement.
Still others remain largely obscure to most Tennesseans. There is Marion Griffin of Memphis, who became in 1907 the first woman to practice law in the state of Tennessee. There is the remarkable Virginia Smith French, a Philadelphia woman who married a man from McMinnville and kept a scrupulously recorded journal during the Civil War, when her land was overrun by occupying armies. Getting to know these women, Anderson says, is her favorite part of the process.
“I’ve gotten a lot stronger through my exposure to these women, and I want to share their stories,” she says; indeed, her enthusiasm often triggers asides about the many people she has encountered on her travels through history. “If the stories are lost, they’re lost forever. But if you know this great story, you can say to someone, ‘You wouldn’t believe the story behind such-and-such,’ and you make the past come alive for that person.”
Through a Woman’s Voice will make its Nashville stage debut in March before traveling to Dyersburg in April and Knoxville in May. Additional performances will be scheduled at schools and conferences around the state. Armed with a $10,500 grant from the Tennessee Humanities Council, Anderson continues her search for archival images and documents, and she may later edit some of these into The Perfect 36 for future broadcasts. If you have suggestions, photographs of women throughout Tennessee history, or historical information or documents that might be useful, contact Candace Anderson at Hungry Ear Productions, 383-9940.
Mark your calendars now for filmmaker Spike Lee’s appearance at Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26. Lee’s new movie, Girl #6, is due in theaters later this spring, and Criterion has just released a superbly annotated laserdisc edition of Do the Right Thing. More details will be forthcoming soon.
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