You Gave Me A Song – The Life and Music of Alice Gerrard

Alice Gerrard’s is a name spoken frequently when discussing bluegrass over the past 50 years. She is viewed as a pioneer for women in old time and mountain music at a time when it was far less common professionally than it is today, and as a songwriter, performer, and publisher.

It is hard to think of Alice without also bringing Hazel Dickens to mind, as they came to widespread attention together in the 1960s, and both went on to be known as tough women who wrote and sang hard songs about injustice they saw in the world.

But, of course, Gerrard had a long career in the music world apart from Hazel, including her solo recording efforts, her projects with Mike Seeger, and her founding and early shepherding of The Old Time Herald magazine which continues to focus on the traditional music of the southeastern United States.

This life of dedication to the long standing folk traditions of the Appalachian region is being chronicled by Kenny Dalsheimer in a new film, You Gave Me A Song – The Life and Music of Alice Gerrard, being produced now in association with the Southern Documentary Fund. Dalsheimer, a fellow North Carolinian, said that he literally stumbled into an interest in her life and art.

Kenny Dalsheimer

“A couple years ago I was at a party where there were some old time musicians in the kitchen, and we were all hanging out with beers and talking. When I mentioned that I was a documentary filmmaker, someone said you should do a film about Alice Gerrard. The more they spoke, the more intrigued with the idea I became, especially after Googling her and discovering that she lived in Durham where I lived as well.”

And now Kenny is collecting interview and archival footage with an eye towards assembling it into a feature-length documentary. His previous films have run roughly an hour, with several chosen to screen at film festivals around the country and on PBS.

He says that he tested the waters a bit with his friends in the academic world before broaching the topic with Alice, now 82 years of age and largely retired.

“I spoke with Bill Farris, history professor at UNC and associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, about the idea, and he was very enthusiastic. I finally spoke to Alice and she was initially reluctant, but after a few discussions she said, ‘sure… it sounds like fun.’

My plan is to follow Alice in her life today, and capture her in music making, teaching workshops and the like. We’ll tell her life story through her archives, and Mike Seeger’s archives, woven into the story of her life today. I’m working on lots of interviews with people who know her well, with the story told through these interviews, mostly with Alice herself.”

In addition to Dalsheimer, You Gave Me A Song has a small staff working on production and marketing. DL Anderson and Heather Cook are listed as Associate Producers, and Ashley Melzer as Executive Producer.

The people working on this project are also looking for help from the people who know and love Alice’s music. As always, financial support is solicited, with donations being full tax deductible through the Southern Documentary Fund, and they are hoping that anyone with photos, film, or video of Gerrard through the years might be willing to share it with the filmmakers.

Kenny says that he has been shooting with Alice for the past year, and is now ready to do more formal, sit-down interviews and bring in cinematographers to assist with the filming.

“Alice is very humble and self-effacing. But she is a documentarian herself, and an archivist, so she understands what I’m doing. I’m making this for people who don’t know her, to explain who she is and what she’s done – and still does.”

He figures it will take him most of this year to finish shooting, with hopes for a 2018 release if the necessary funding is forthcoming. It is thought that a budget of $120,000 will be required to capture interviews, take care of music and film licensing, and for final editing and prints.

Melzer will soon embark on fundraising in earnest, and anyone interested in supporting this project can find more details online.

Kenny will be looking for distribution through public television, and through old time and bluegrass music camps and associations, with perhaps a limited run on DVD as well.

He’s promised to stay in touch as the film moves forward, so we’ll be sure to post updates as they become available.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.