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‘Relevant today more than ever,” says one interviewee in Southern Journey (Revisited), pointing out his Easy Rider pin badge. “Man went looking for America and couldn’t find it nowhere.” But this roving, loquacious documentary does its damn best to pin down the American soul, going on a road trip through Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi in the tracks of ethnomusicologists Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins on their 1959 “Southern Journey” in search of the south’s musical traditions.
Directors Rob Curry and Tim Plester are ostensibly about the music. Their first porch stop is with a Salem, Virginia woman whose dark, purposeful eyes are a spitter for her grandmother: Appalachian balladeer Texas Gladden, who was doorstepped by Lomax 60 years ago. There are heart-stopping performances, and we are apprised of the odd informational gem, such as the fact that the beat for MC Hammer’s Can’t Touch This is drawn from Mississippi’s fife and drum music. But the film quickly spirals into a broader survey of southern culture, as the tension and culture wars of the 2018 midterm elections smoulder in the background.
For music that draws so richly on the textures of everyday lives, it makes sense for the film to let itself be drawn in this direction. The continuities in people’s concerns aren’t all welcome. One Mississippi gospel singer reflects on Lomax being an exception to the rule of exploiting black musicians. Another, in her beautiful house, on the effect on her life of her great-grandfather becoming her town’s first black landowner.
The new Southern Journey – with a quilted-together oral form – makes a staunch defence of this history of immigration and the dispossessed. But this allegiance means it doesn’t fully grapple with the Maga mainstream who feel they own this culture and are entitled to police it. A melancholy sense of a broken and post-lapsarian America – that in the words of Easy Rider, “We blew it, Billy” – is easier. It’s a thought-provoking journey all the same.
• Southern Journey (Revisited) is in cinemas from 25 September.
Source: The Guardian
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