Sunday, February 12, 2012

'Heavenly Sight' radio documentary celebrates blind musicians

From the Press-Register in Alabama:

FOLEY, Alabama — The eerie keening of Blind Willie Johnson’s guitar.

The preaching songs of Rev. Gary Davis (pictured).

Ray Charles singing “What’d I Say?”

Those are just a few of the blind musicians from the gospel tradition whose sound rings through what we now call American music.

The public radio music documentary “Heavenly Sight: A Vision Out of Blindness” tells this rich story in music and interviews. It is distributed to public radio stations nationwide by Public Radio International while its trove of rare audio and images will be preserved at and made available worldwide.

The program will air at 8 p.m. Feb. 18 on WTSU in Troy, Ala., 8 p.m. Feb. 22 on KDAQ in Shreveport, La., and later this month on WLRH in Huntsville.

Written and reported by David Marash, “Heavenly Sight” teams New York’s Murray Street Productions with the Alabama nonprofit Artemis Media Project. The documentary features the Blind Boys of Alabama, modern piano wizard Henry Butler and numerous and lesser known musicians such Birmingham’s Larscene Turk.
In the black church, blindness has always carried a special gift. Blind Willie Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, Arizona Dranes, Blind Willie McTell, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, the Blind Boys of Alabama — all have had a unique role in giving American song its soul.

The project has produced a wealth of original recorded interviews, transcripts and research materials. Producers unearthed rare archival sound from the Library of Congress — and from little-known commercial sources. They gathered contemporary music, research documents, graphics and photographs.

New interviews include Lee Breuer, Henry Butler, Valerie Capers, Jimmy Carter, David Bromberg, Kip Lornell and Bernice Johnson Reagon and other scholars.

Recordings bring to life the times of these blind musicians: learning music at segregated schools; singing or being robbed on street corners; navigating and changing the music industry.

Research uncovered stories about Arizona Dranes, who traveled the Southwest helping found Pentecostal churches before being “discovered” by Okeh Records.

Singer and guitarist Flora Molton staked out a corner of Washington, D.C. “A rough sister,” says Reagon. On the streets, “you walked into her sound. . . . You were breathing her air.”

“Heavenly Sight” takes the past into the future with Blind Willie Johnson, one of the greatest bottleneck guitarists, whose iconic moan “Dark Was the Night” went into space on the Voyager space probe; the music of a nearly obscure blind black man selected to represent the human race.

The website will bring the panorama of blues and gospel styles well beyond the documentary audience — drawn by curiosity, social media, blog posts, search engines and enthusiasm for the authentic styles and artists whose work the project brings to light.

“We designed ‘Heavenly Sight’ to use all the platforms at our disposal,” says Kathie Farnell of Foley, Ala., headquarters for Artemis Media.“Beyond radio and audio features, we want to make our interviews and collections available for research and entertainment. This is why we’re seeking additional funding through to make our website easily accessible to visually handicapped users.”

Murray Street producer Steve Rathe says the project organizers “have been inspired by this project for four years.”

“Though funding it has been hard, we’re pleased to present these remarkable stories like that of Rev. Gary Davis, who influenced Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan and so many guitarists,” Rathe says. “He played and preached on the streets where his guitars were stolen so often that he began packing a pistol.

“In our interviews, guitarist David Bromberg — Davis’ onetime lead-boy — told us, ‘If the Reverend fell asleep in a chair, when he woke up the first thing he’d do was draw his pistol.’ ”

The “Heavenly Sight” project has received support from Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Alabama State Council on the Arts is the state arts agency, funded through an annual appropriation from the Alabama legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The NEA is an independent agency of the federal government founded to advance artistic excellence, creativity and innovation. Additional funds are sought through , a new way to find, fund and follow creativity.