Original music, archival footage combine in film

Contributed To The Press • Sep 17, 2016 at 5:51 PM

In the late 1930s and early ’40s, portrait photographer and filmmaker H. Lee Waters traveled through the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee, filming ordinary people smiling, dancing, talking, walking, leaving work and generally enjoying life.

He would then show his films in local movie theaters so the townsfolk could see themselves and their friends on the big screen.

Between 1936 and 1942, Waters made 118 films and inadvertently created the most comprehensive archive of Depression-era American life that exists.

“Sometimes the shots are so short you don’t even see the character blink, but there still is some kind of motion and life in them that you don’t get in ‘still’ photography,” says musician and singer/songwriter Jenny Scheinman.

“There’s a lot of affection and interaction which is very moving and is strikingly different than the look of any American town now. They look into the lens very guilelessly and movingly.

“There is an innocence and truthfulness here that we have lost to social media, obsessive self-documentation, selfies and YouTube.”

More than 70 years later, Scheinman was asked by Duke Performances at Duke University, where Waters’ archives is housed, to create a live music-plus-film show using this footage — these “moving portraits.”

Scheinman wrote and collected more than three hours of music, including original fiddle tunes, narrative songs and labor songs, then enlisted feature filmmaker Finn Taylor to create a new movie from H. Lee Waters’ footage using her music as a blueprint.

Together they have created a portrait of American life from various perspectives such as childhood, school, labor, poverty, war, race relations, dancing, athletics and romance.

“Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait,” will be presented at ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium on Thursday, Sept. 22, at 7:30 p.m. Scheinman will perform her score live — as the characters dance across the screen behind her — with her acoustic trio, which features Scheinman on violin and vocals, Robbie Fulks on banjo, guitar and vocals and Robbie Gjersoe on resonator guitar and vocals.

Scheinman has released eight albums of original music, two with words, and six instrumental, featuring some of the world’s most influential jazz artists. She has been called “the best fiddler in New York City” and has been in Bill Frisell’s bands for most of her adult life, as well as having worked closely with musicians including Rodney Crowell, Jason Moran, Bruce Cockburn, Brian Blade and David Byrne.

Her most recent album, “The Littlest Prisoner,” features some of the music from “Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait.”

Robbie Fulks has 12 records and has appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Austin City Limits” and “30 Rock.” Robbie Gjersoe is co-creator of Screen Door Music and has composed music for many films and TV shows including “The Mentalist.”

Scheinman says she tried not to make the music for “A Moving Portrait” overly sentimental, but to instead let the audience decide how to feel about the images and characters they are watching.

“Ms. Scheinman's compositions,” says All Music Guide, “carry within them the mystery, history, heartbreak, and humor of the American experience as lived through one at the margins of culture, race, ideology, style, and spirituality.”

The show presents footage from many different towns in and around the Piedmont region, but uses as its namesake one particular town, Kannapolis, which was once home to the world’s largest textile mill, which serves as a central image in a show preoccupied with the “weaving together of people and time.”

The town’s nickname, The City Of Looms, inspired one of Scheinman’s songs: Going down to the City of Looms/Going to bring my thread and needle/Going to lay my burden down, down on Southern ground/You got those and I got these/I can share my cooties with who I please.

“What I love about Jenny’s music is it feels timeless,” Taylor says. “I was hearing one of the songs and I was thinking this sounds so new and fresh – but it also could have been written in 1900. It was just so inspiring to cut the film to that music.”

The result is “a beautifully coordinated melding of music and film,” says Joan Reinthaler of the Washington Post.

The intertwining of media and arts areas in the film attracted the attention of ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts Director Anita DeAngelis.

“I always enjoy when we can book artists that are really crossing disciplines and this particular performance definitely fits that,” DeAngelis says. “This is an important piece of work, a collaboration between musicians, filmmakers and director, and a collaboration between history and the present.”

“Music and film is an absolutely magical combination when it clicks,” Scheinman told The Chronicle newspaper of Duke University. “It’s so much more powerful than either of them separately.”

For more information on Scheinman, visit jennyscheinman.com.

For tickets or information about ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit www.etsu.edu/martin.

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