Scott Barretta felt skeptical when he was cold-called May 1st to share ideas for a film project. The former editor of esteemed Swedish blues magazine Jefferson and Oxford, Mississippi's Living Blues had grown accustomed to such queries. "Having worked in blues, I'm used to getting milked for information by people making documentary films," Barretta says. The drill is quite simple. "They'll say they'd like to work with me, I tell them everything I know, and they never call me back."
G. Marq Roswell, who contacted Barretta, proved to be more than a purist on a shoestring budget. Roswell has over 50 credits as music supervisor in motion pictures including Wild at Heart, The Commitments, and Baadasssss!.
Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington hired Roswell to re-create African-American blues, jazz, and gospel from the mid-1930s — without the crack and hiss of the surviving sounds of those days on 78 rpm records — as the aural backdrop for The Great Debaters, the story of a small black college in Texas taking the national debate championship in 1935 against rather long odds. Washington directed, produced, and starred in the film, and his fingerprints are all over the soundtrack, for which Barretta facilitated recording sessions and wrote liner notes.
The soundtrack bridges different genres and generations of black music practitioners to make old music in original combinations that include Memphis musicians Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, Teenie and Leroy Hodges, and Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith choir.
Hart bristles at the thought of himself as a revivalist. "As far as being the preservation society — that's not me," he says. Nevertheless, Hart and the African-American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops immediately came to mind when Roswell asked Barretta to recommend musicians for a juke-joint scene.
"Alvin's simply the best person alive playing that style of acoustic blues," Barretta says. "I'd just seen the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and it became clear to me that if you hooked them up with Alvin, it'd be great, so I suggested that to Roswell. He liked the mp3s I sent and asked where we should record. I said, 'Why don't we do it in Memphis?'"
"It" required three two-day recording sessions at Ardent studio. Atlantic Records released the soundtrack, with 13 songs made in Memphis, on December 11th.
The youngest of the featured artists, the 30-and-under Carolina Chocolate Drops, play the oldest style. They represent a black string-band tradition that "has always been there, it's just hidden," explains Dom Flemons, a 25-year-old multi-instrumentalist who joins Rhiannon Giddons and Justin Robinson to round out the Chocolate Drops' lineup. "We might be the first black string band in a major motion picture," Flemons adds.
"Working with the Carolina Chocolate Drops was fun because they're years younger than me," Hart explains. "Looking back when I was their age, I was wondering if there was anybody else into this stuff. This was something I've been waiting for."
Washington wanted a modern-day Bessie Smith, the prototype blues queen who died following a wreck on a Mississippi highway in 1937. He found her in Sharon Jones, the soul singer from Brooklyn who, along with her Dap-Kings, has released the year's soul revival hit album 100 Days, 100 Nights. Despite her historical leanings as an artist, Jones says she wasn't fully aware of the Memphis music legacy until she arrived at Ardent studio to cut tracks for The Great Debaters.
"I was standing there where Booker T. & the MG's had recorded, playing with Alvin and Teenie [Hodges]," Jones explains. "I wasn't familiar with Memphis' reputation when I got there, but being there was an education." Hart, the guitarist whom Taj Mahal once described as possessing "thunder in his hands," knew to expect the unexpected at the Ardent sessions.
"The funny thing about recording in Memphis is that you never know who's going to show up," Hart says. "I'd worked with the Hodges brothers maybe 10 years ago. They showed up. Then somehow we started working with Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith choir. I'm glad that the soundtrack work was done here and the producers of the film kept coming back and getting more local people involved."
It's a treat to hear Teenie Hodges, whose name is synonymous with the plush sound of the 1970s, pluck his acoustic on the foot-stomping Piedmont blues duet "Step It Up and Go" with Hart. "Teenie's certainly not known as an acoustic blues player, but that's what he did, and when he and Alvin played together, it was seamless," Barretta says.
Barretta explains that Washington wanted to begin and conclude the film with musical prayers. Memphis got Jones in the mood.
"I go to church, and I know what it's like when the Holy Ghost comes through. People get to shouting," Jones says. "During the recording, I could literally feel it. Some kind of something came over me in that studio while I was singing 'My Soul Is a Witness.' It was like I was in church, and I got happy."
Jones' happiness has yet to wear off. "I know I'm not dreaming," she says. "I know it's for real, and I know it's done. This is something I'll tell stories about for a long time."
The project left the performers with a sense of unique accomplishment, as Hart explains: "If you'd have told me when I was a 15-year-old wannabe guitar player in the garage that I was going to be working with Denzel Washington, I would have said, 'What?'"
The Great Debaters opens at movie theaters on Christmas day.