The adage “Bloom where you are planted” may be seen on the lace-trimmed T-shirts of ladies with fake geese in their gardens and faux finishes in their rec rooms, but it’s a formula that sometimes actually works.
Witness Susan Levitas, who, when she made her first film, wasn’t a filmmaker. “I’d been living in D.C. for about five or six years,” says Levitas of the beginnings of the documentary The Music District, “and I had been working as a folklorist.” Among her many projects while in D.C., she ran the folk-arts-apprenticeship program for the D.C. Council on the Arts and Humanities and worked with the National Council for the Traditional Arts to locate and promote music in the city.
This was in the early ’90s, when the nation’s capital was deemed the murder capital. “When the crack epidemic hit the city, the media images being projected out to the world only reflected this image of drugs and despair and decay,” says Levitas. So she set about documenting a brighter side of the city: its African-American musical cultures.
“It became clear to me that there was no such thing as a monolithic African-American community,” says Levitas, whose film ended up focusing on four groups representing different styles: the harmony group the Orioles, go-go-ers Junk Yard Band, jubilee quartet the Four Echoes, and the gospel brass shout band Kings of Harmony.
“The whole project took about five years,” Levitas recalls. She got an NEA grant to help her along, but she hadn’t thought much about what would happen with the finished product: “I was thinking like a folklorist.” But when the film premiered at the newly refurbished Lincoln Theatre in 1996 and 1,000 people showed up, she realized she’d better start thinking like a filmmaker. She secured distribution for the film, which won critical accolades as well as a couple of folk-film awards—a Cine Golden Eagle and an American Anthropological Association award.
Now Levitas is a full-time filmmaker (Shalom Y’all, about Jews in the South, recently finished a run on the Sundance Channel), and The Music District can be seen by a worldwide audience with the launch of folkstreams.net, a Web site where users can view films about American folk culture. The Music District was also recently the featured film at the Folkstreams launch party at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center on Nov. 6. Levitas appeared there, as did Folkstreams founder and filmmaker Tom Davenport and members of the groups featured in the film.
Levitas, born and raised in Atlanta and now living in New Orleans (“Air conditioning—it’s a beautiful thing!”), points out that three of the four genres portrayed in her film are no more native to the city than she is. The gospel shout tradition began in the Cape Verdean islands, was filtered through Southern string-band music, and picked up brass along the way. Jubilee singing is from the deep South, and the Orioles’ brand of harmony is often associated with the Northeast. In a way, the Junk Yard Band is the most “original” of the musical folkways examined in the film. “The Junk Yard Band is a D.C. tradition. It never was intended to be, nor did it become, a radio kind of music,” says Levitas.
“We tend to think of traditional music as being from far away and long ago. The idea that there could be an urban spinoff—that interests me.”—Pamela Murray Winters