- "You Gave Me a Song": The Life and Music of Alice Gerrard by Kenny Dalsheimer and Ashley Melzer
The under-told story of trailblazing bluegrass and old-time musician Alice Gerrard is illuminated in the biographical documentary film "You Gave Me a Song": The Life and Music of Alice Gerrard. Gerrard has long been recognized as a "pioneering woman of bluegrass," but her musical and creative work extends beyond her role as one of the first women to have a successful career in the genre: she continues to be deeply committed to preserving Appalachian musical traditions and is an advocate for inclusivity and diversity within them. The film explores Gerrard's personal and musical journey to bluegrass and old-time and offers rich insights into her growth as a musician, partner, mother, collaborator, creative thinker, collector, and friend. "You Gave Me a Song" demonstrates her profound and affective connection to bluegrass and old-time music, narrates how she carved a space for herself in a largely male-dominated industry, and reveals her lasting impact on the people and music that surround her.
"You Gave Me a Song" follows Gerrard's life chronologically from her early childhood in Seattle, Washington, to her performing years in Washington, DC; Pennsylvania; West Virginia; and North Carolina. In addition to original footage, the film features a breadth of photos, video footage, and audio material from Gerrard's personal collections. Scenes from her early explorations into traditional folk music in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the late 1950s set the stage for a rich career that was grounded in what Gerrard describes as her draw to the authenticity of traditional music and the refuge it offered her at the tail end of a somewhat rebellious youth. The film is largely narrated by Gerrard herself and features interviews with musicians, friends, and family members who factor prominently in Gerrard's life. Through these intimate and varied perspectives, the film aptly conveys the interconnectedness of Gerrard's music and her personal life. There is a certain candor to the film: viewers are drawn into both the highs and lows of Gerrard's life not only through her own words but from the perspectives of her children as well. Gerrard's oftentimes difficult personal trials and family dynamics are emphasized just as much as her music, which affirms that her personal and musical endeavors ought not to be thought of as separate.
Unsurprisingly, the film highlights Gerrard's relationship with the late bluegrass musician Hazel Dickens and their time spent together as the iconic duo "Hazel & Alice." Dickens' distinctive vocal style gained recognition in her home state of West Virginia and then as a singer in bluegrass bands in the Baltimore, Maryland, area. There, Gerrard and Dickens began a long-term collaboration that disrupted narratives of the time that suggested women were not practitioners of bluegrass and old-time music. The film also sheds light on some of the lesser-known challenges of the duo's relationship. While some histories portray Gerrard as taking a back seat to Dickens' distinctive and unhinged musical style, Gerrard describes how she often struggled to follow Dickens' wandering vocal pitch, and that the two began to fray, ideologically, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. As bluegrass and old-time music communities still struggle to create open and inclusive spaces that amplify the voices of women and people of color, "You Gave Me a Song" offers a more nuanced understanding of women's long-held contributions to traditional Appalachian music. The film specifically emphasizes Gerrard's connection to Black music traditions, including [End Page 128] old-time and soul music. The filmmakers highlight Gerrard and Dickens' involvement as touring musicians with the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project of the 1960s and 1970s. Although the film reiterates Gerrard's connection to social and racial justice initiatives and cites examples such as "Beaufort County Jail" (a song Gerrard wrote in response to the sexual assault defense case of Joan Little in 1974...