Fannie Bell Chapman, Notes by William Ferris

Fannie Bell Chapman, Notes by William Ferris

Fannie Bell Chapman, Notes by William Ferris

Unedited comments by filmmaker William Ferris (WF) as he watched the film, perhaps intended as footnotes for the Transcription.

Centreville, Mississippi is the home of Anne Moody, who wrote "Coming of Age in Mississippi," and one of Mrs. Chapman's daughters is married into the Moody family, which gives the film a special meaning—a connection to civil rights history. WF

The opening shot is in the home of the Chapman family. It features Fannie Bell Chapman with her husband, Fred Chapman, standing behind her and the daughters and sons-in-law, singing and playing around her. WF

Many of these hymns were actually composed by Mrs. Chapman. WF

This is a typical prayer ceremony, which often is performed not only in her home, but in the streets and backyards of the community and sometimes in hospitals where she and her church members go as a praying band. A special meaning [is] attached to how she prays and leads the spiritual life of her community. WF

The history of women in the black church has often been marginalized, and they have not had access to the pulpit in the way that men have. So from the 19th Century on, you have spiritual figures who are women who have performed outside the formal church, in homes and community locations. And that’s what we’re seeing here: a female spiritual leader who is part of an ancestral Afro-American religious tradition that goes back to the 19th century and earlier. WF

The importance of women as healers in the nineteenth century is the focus of Jean Humez’s Gifts of Power: the Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress. In this book Humez explores the life of a black AME Zion religious leader who becomes an elder among the Shakers and conducts highly emotional healing ceremonies in homes in Philadelphia.

The role of such women as private spiritual and physical healers paralleled the public role of male preachers. While the “word of God” was expressed by male prechers in sermons, the “spirit of God” was voiced by women healers in home services.

In his classic Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926), Newbell Niles Puckett underscores the role of black women as healers and argues that “the great mass of folk medicine is in their hands rather than in the hands of the men. The women are the great practitioners, the folk doctors—the old granny with her ‘yarbs an’ intimints’ does much to keep alive these folk cures and to make these beliefs in general more a feminine possession than the context would seem to indicate

Fannie Bell Chapman is clearly a part of this healing tradition as she speaks about what she calls a “Hallelujah time,” which is when the spirit descends, people are possessed, speak in tongues and also do faith healing. At this point, the camera pans down to the floor of their living room, and you can see literally that the floor is shaking. And later in the film, when we were having a major prayer service within the home, the floor began to give way, and she summoned the entire group of family and friends out of the house and into the back yard because they were threatening to destroy the house with their dancing, and you can see the floor shaking here. WF

We used Electro Voice directional microphones. They’re old workhorses we used in our field recordings. In this case we were recording with a Nagra tape recorder. WF

We were also using an Arriflex BL, shoulder-mounted, 16-millimeter camera with a large film capsule on the top. WF

This is a traveling shot approaching the Chapman home and the yard is swept clean in a way that many black home [owners] sweep the front yard and make the yard really an extension of the house, an outdoor room under the shade of the trees. It’s here that children play games and food is served outdoors, and that friends and family sit and talk together and visit. In the evening often the prayer services and musical services are outdoors, all of which give a cooler and more open kind of environment for both day and nighttime life. WF

One of the characteristics of what we call folk art and the folk tradition is the recycling of objects, a recycling of fabrics from shirts and other sources into quilts, In this case, recycling old tires into tires that become toys for kids is a very popular and widespread tradition in the Deep South. WF

Those are all grandchildren of the Chapmans, and here is a very deep and intimate connection of family between the people in this home. Although the daughters and their husbands live in different places and their children do as well, the Chapman home is where everyone comes. It’s the hub of the wheel. WF

Now the idea of a singing band of family members is widespread in the South. Probably the most famous of these groups is the Staples singers who moved from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. But you have many family groups who do sacred music. Some of them quite well known and others locally celebrated. It’s also a tradition within white country and gospel as well. The family is the most intimate and important link in passing music from generation to generation. WF

This scene is a perfect example of how the outdoors is used as an external room. Here, a wonderful, airy couch has been created between two majestic trees. And it’s in that niche of outdoor, natural beauty that the beautiful daughters of Mrs. Chapman often gather to talk and sing. WF

And what they are talking about here is one of their mothers’ faith healing religious ceremonies where one of the guests becomes possessed by the spirit. The music and the spiritual event is something that she remembers very vividly. WF

The a capella singing style of sacred music is to my mind the most beautiful of all, with no accompaniment, drumming or guitars, just the pure voice and that’s what we have here. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful moment of these five sisters singing their mother’s music. What is even more evocative is that Doll Moody, who is the guitarist, actually begins to mimic playing the guitar as the song is being sung. WF

Now, Mrs. Chapman is sweeping the backyard, again, as one would sweep off the front porch. She’s clearing out sticks and stones and making a smooth, clean surface for her grandchildren to play in and, as we’ll see later, to eat their dinner, their noon meal. The noon meal in the South is called dinnertime. WF

The sense of place is always ever-present in the life of people, especially the rural South. So when Mrs. Chapman describes who she is, she begins with the county. Wilkerson County, Amite County, where she’s lived. WF

You can see the ditch running though the backyard where the water moves out down the hill. And it’s into that ditch that she is sweeping the trash from the yard.

This is a beautiful example of three, sometimes four generations living and playing and worshipping together. WF

The physical touch of young children being picked up and handled is important. There’s a great openness to touch and affection. WF

Mrs. Chapman, in addition to being a gospel singer and healer, is also a folk artist who creates sacred space using, again, thrown away objects. In this case, plastic containers that hold Coca-Colas or other cans are woven together to create a kind of an altar, which becomes the center of the backyard. During the daytime, it’s where people gather to eat, and at night it’s often where worship services are focused. WF

Mrs. Chapman is very much in communion with the Lord. As we’ll see later, the Lord sent her a sign to become a healer. And it’s in this backyard that her primary communication each day with the Lord takes place. She’s often sitting there, communing, while children and grandchildren are moving around her. WF

Mrs, Chapman is talking about how inspiration comes to her to create music. All of her spirituality is a direct communication with the Lord who touches her and brings her communication, often new hymns and spirituals she that creates come through her like a vessel from the Lord. WF

She’s describing how God spoke to her, and she was struck by that communication. And she told her daughter, “You sit down at the piano and let me give you the song.” And she called that song, “God Spoke,” which is one of her most famous pieces that she and her family sing. WF

This is filmed in her living room and the front door is on the right side of the (film) screen. The dirt road that passes in front of the house is outside.
In scenes in this chair, the children are playing outside and sometimes will stick their head through the window to see what’s happening. And it’s in and out of this door that the people come at the spiritual services later. WF

Mrs. Chapman’s hands are very important. She uses her hands to heal the sick and she also uses them very effectively to communicate the meaning of her music. They’re constantly working. She uses them to weave the folk art of her environment in her backyard. WF

In many ways, this living room is the counterpart of the backyard. There’s an indoor and outdoor space where her conversation, her music, her healing occurs. This is one of the two spaces that are very important. WF

The guttural, deep sound of her voice is a characteristic sound of both men and women in African American music. Especially in the Mississippi Delta, the voices of artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker are part of that tradition. Someone in the Delta with whom I was talking and asked, “What does it take to be a great female vocalist?” answered “It takes a woman with the voice of a man,” a deep guttural voice, and that’s a characteristic sound of Chapman and of many other female vocalists from Aretha Franklin to Shirley Caesar. WF

Mrs. Chapman is also singing about Old Testament stories, “Daniel in the Lion’s Den.” The African American religion is deeply rooted in the Old Testament. The story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt and the oppression of the Pharoah and many other stories are summoned in the music and in spirituals. The phrase “let my people go” is important in Jewish and in black history, and she is drawing from that religious tradition in her music. WF

She is also explaining a basic pattern in black music and in sacred music, which we call “call and response.” The call comes from her voice as the lead singer, and the response from her daughters and sons-in-law. With her hands and voice she explains her sound and the response as she’s describing how this song was first performed. WF

Her hands are constantly working to make a special point, as she claps hands together and continues to talk. This is also a pattern in her spiritual healing, she will often, in course of moving of her hands to cut, as she says, ”disease as fine as cat’s hair,” she will clap hands as part of that ceremony. Clapping hands are also important in singing: the rhythmic beat is often established through the clapping hands. WF

This is like a little tea party for her grandchildren. She gives them soft drinks and crackers with jelly and jam on it. She is the ultimate matriarchal figure, and these children surround her in an adoring way. And in the back is this religious edifice that she’s create in the backyard. She’s like a queen in her kingdom, and the children are protecting her and seeing that flies don’t light on the food, and in exchange, she’s feeing them. And as she feeds them, she’s talking about her parents and how they trained her and raised her in ways that she’s done with her children and grandchildren. WF

The children have their own time to play the piano and sing, and it’s a good example of how each generation is shaped by the music that Mrs, Chapman is such an important part of. The town of Centreville is close to beautiful rural areas with lovely streams. And it’s to one of these streams that the children go in the summer to play and picnic and swim. It’s a kind of total freedom of the outdoors. WF

One of the most important traditions of children are children’s games. In the African American community the ring game is especially important. These are games that are played while children either stand or move in a circle with someone standing in the middle. One of the most important of these is “Little Sally Walker.” It’s a game that anticipates courtship and children imitating courtship with the opposite sex and their love for music and song. And as Mrs. Chapman will later say, she remembers playing these games as a child and she will echo what her grandchildren are singing and doing outdoors. WF

Now we’re about to have dinner, ”noon meal,” outside, served by Mrs. Chapman to her grandchildren. WF

The snake is a central figure in African American religion folk art and music. It’s the key figure in voodoo called Damballa, the snake god. It appears in folktales. It appears in the blues, the “Crawling Kingsnake Blues,” and it appears in the life of Fannie Bell Chapman. As a young child, she befriends a snake who is killed by her family when they discover she’s feeding it. And then later, as a teenager, she falls asleep in a field and wakes up with a large snake lying on top of her. And she says, “I guess you could say I’d made my life with that snake. It was my mate.” There’s a powerful connection between her experience with snakes and her sacred journey. WF

In the backyard, there is a sacred space that has a plastic umbrella at the top of it, which echoes the umbrellas that are so familiar in the New Orleans jazz marching bands. The central figure who leads the bands has an umbrella that he raises and lowers to lead the band along its way. WF

Centreville is within a hundred and fifty miles of New Orleans, and there is a very important connection between the musical and voodoo traditions of New Orleans and the rural areas around Centreville. And Mrs, Chapman at one point had a man, a rather mysterious man, from the New Orleans area who would visit her every year, and people thought that he was a voodoo healer and that they had a special communication. WF

The town of Centerville is in many ways a world apart from her home. Although she lives in Centerville, it’s a special occasion when she goes to Main Street and takes a drive with Mr. Chapman. When she goes downtown to buy a dress, she says she’s a “hundred-dollar woman.” She can go downtown to buy a dress for a hundred dollars, which is something quite dramatic in the little town of Centerville. WF

There’s a strong tradition of pantheism in the South. Mrs. Chapman clearly sees a divine presence in the world around her: the bees, the birds, the trees, the grass, the flowers. And she communes with god in the midst of this nature. And she again is creating religious art from discarded objects, in this case egg cartons that are plastic, that she makes part of the altar. WF

The presence of gender is so very important, and she describes a pantheistic vision of life--the beauty of nature--in terms of a dress, when she says, “World, you is a beautiful dress.” WF

This is the most important moment in which God spoke to Mrs. Chapman through a pillar of cloud, really an Old Testament image of the God speaking to his people. She asked for a sign, and he gave it to her with thunder and lighting. And she asked for a second sign, and he gave it to her with an airplane passing to let her know that she was hearing the voice of God. WF

Now, when Mrs, Chapman heals, she has healed both her children and grandchildren as well as people in the community. And the song she sings during the ceremony is “I knowed it was the blood that healed me.” So each generation understands that when that hymn is sung, the healing is taking place. WF

Mrs. Chapman has a whole system of medicine that she understands is connected to the blood a little like the medieval idea of the humors of the body. By treating those humors and dealing the blood and how it runs through the body, you cure disease. That’s also connected to religious curing and the spiritual healing. So there’s a mix of both medical theory and spiritual belief at work within her healing, and each generation of this family has watched her do it and totally believes in and respects her powers. WF

This is a ceremony that she conducted with one of her grandchildren who was feeling poorly. In this ceremony, she uses a number of techniques. She uses her hands to cut the disease, which she says is as fine as cat’s hairs, she uses the music to summon the forces to help with the healing. She also uses the Bible as a totem, letting its pages turn and blow air on the sick child. All of that is part of the ceremony. WF

Her spiritual clothing, which is all white, differs from her beautifully colored dresses that she wears during normal days. They signal a healer. As we will see later, her friend, Sister Millie Witherspoon, who is another healer from Louisiana, comes and conducts the ceremony with her. But when she is dressed in white, then she is in the healing mode and is ready to conduct a service. Traditionally in the South, women who dressed in white were part of the sanctified tradition. Sister Gertrude Morgan, a famous singer/healer/artist in Louisiana, in New Orleans, dressed in white when she was healing on the streets of New Orleans. In her own art she has self- portraits of herself dressed in white as a healer. WF

“The first time I got happy” means “the first time I got the spirit and was possessed by a divine being,” and that’s at a service like the one we see now with Fannie Bell Chapman and Sister Millie Witherspoon. WF

The healers refer to each other as “sister”: Sister Fannie Bell Chapman, Sister Millie Witherspoon. [They] bring a double-barreled spiritual power to this ceremony and call and respond to each other while family and congregation around them are developed into the ceremony. WF

As the ceremony gets more intense, Fannie Bell Chapman is possessed by the spirit and is helped to a couch where she beings to speak in tongues. And then, as the music grows even more intense, the floor begins to collapse in the living room, and she leads the entire group outside where the ceremony continues under the same tree and in the same place where we saw her feeding her grandchildren earlier. WF

This is a pattern of praying and music that can also be heard in the small black churches in the area. But in this case, the church is the house, in fact, it’s the living room of the Chapman home, and unlike the churches where men would be in the pulpit, it’s Mrs. Chapman and Sister Witherspoon that are leading this service. And the male prayer figure is a very important part of that. We kind of have a call and response as the music dominates and then the prayer dominates and goes back and forth as the service develops. WF

The fans are a very important part of the religious service. They are important because the air is usually hot, and fans are a way of keeping people cool. They also are icons of the community, usually provided by black funeral homes to advertise their services with images of both black and white figures associated with Christianity. WF

In the middle of the living room at the height of the service, the chair becomes the altar at which Mrs. Witherspoon and Mrs. Chapman are singing and praying. It’s here that Mrs. Chapman is struck and possessed by the spirit at the crescendo of the service and begins to speak in tongues. WF

Mrs. Chapman has seen that the floor is beginning to collapse and she’s now moving all of the people in the room outside, where they will go down below the house under the trees. WF

Blood is a constant theme. The blood of Christ on the cross is connected to the blood in the body that’s sick when she heals. This also is connected to the blood in the hymn that she is singing, right now, which is the theme of her healing: “One day when I was lost, he died upon the cross, the blood came streaming down…” So this theme of blood is flowing throughout her life as a healer and her voice as a singer and every other part of her experience: there’s a sense of blood being present in every aspect of her life. WF

It’s just as it was at the noon dinner, children are moving in and out of the crowd in the backyard, animals are moving around. It’s a total inclusiveness to everyone and everything around her. WF

It took a month to film this, and we made several trips to Centreville, Mississippi. Judy Peiser and I went on every trip together and my sister, Hester, Magnuson was on one of the trips. Bobby Taylor was on one of the trips, and we did extensive filming and recording on each of those two trips. WF

I first met Mrs. Chapman in the late ‘60s when I was doing field recordings in the Centreville area of blues singers. And I recorded at that time her gospel music and some interviews with her and her family. It was on the basis of those recording that I decided it was really important to go back and do a major film on her life. So about a decade later we went back with cameras and recorders and produced a full-length record album called, “Fannie Bell Chapman, Gospel Singer.” WF

The family’s income is not connected to the religious service and the hymns. Her husband worked full time and the husbands of her daughters had full-time jobs, and basically that’s where the income came from. There was a great deal of sharing of resources. She would feed the whole family fairly often, certainly all the grandchildren. They owned houses that constituted a compound around her house. The house below her home was owned by one of her daughters and her husband. I think Mr. Chapman drove a school bus, and they all had jobs in the community that were connected to the town and the area around Centreville. WF

Virtually all of the children in this film are grandchildren—her daughters’ children--who are constantly around her s they grow up. WF

She was not attached to a church per se, so her home was the center of her religious experience. She was a spiritual leader, as a minister in a church would be. Because women were not really given access to the pulpit, they chose alternative ways to express their faith and to heal. This is a tradition that goes back over a century. There are documented accounts of famous healers in Philladelphia, Pennsylvania, and many spiritual healers in New Orleans, which was the real the heartland for voodoo and African dance and music that blended Christian belief systems and music to create a distinctive black church with roots in voodoo and Christianity. And we can see that very clearly in her life and performance and spiritual worlds. WF

She is a part of the Christian tradition in the sense that her religious experience connects to the Bible and especially to the Old Testament through her prayers and her music. It also connects to African religion, to voodoo and the snake god, Damballa. The concept of the crossroads exists in both voodoo and Christianity. The experience of Paul at the Damascus road was a crossroads transformation during which Paul received divine inspiration in the same way that Robert Johnson had a crossroads experience that allowed him to become the greatest blues singer in exchange for selling his soul. These are each crossroads experiences that we find both in European Christianity and African voodoo. These streams merge in Mrs, Chapman’s life and in her religion. WF

The first [service] is a granddaughter who is healed from some minor problem. The second [service] is a merging of a visit by her very close friend, Mrs. Millie Witherspoon, who is from Kenner, Louisiana, who often joins Mrs, Chapman for spiritual services. When that happens, people in the community come together. They are dressed for a religious meeting. They are well-dressed with hats and dresses and suits that one would expect in a church service. So the second service was a full-fledged meeting in which both women lead the meeting, and Mrs. Chapman ends it by moving it outdoors. That service went on for hours. It often will begin in the early hours of the evening and go for three or four hours of singing and dance. These are very demanding services. WF

Mr. Palmer is Mrs. Witherspoon’s partner who travels with her and helps lead the service with her prayer. WF

The services are usually within a few hours’ drive of Centreville, and they go at the invitation of friends and families. If someone is ill at the hospital they wll go in their room, or in a room in their home and conduct a healing ceremony for them. This really is a mobile traveling band. As she says, they can go anywhere and bring the spirit, bring the healing experience wherever the sick person is located. WF

My sense is that no one in the family really continues this tradition in the way that Mrs. Chapman did because they all looked to her as their healer and the spiritual figure. They certainly continue to sing gospel and are part of that tradition. Mrs. Chapman and her husband are no longer alive and some of the daughters are no longer alive. WF

The response to the film was really overwhelming. We had a premier of the film in Mrs. Chapman’s backyard. We set up a screen and took a 16-millimeter projector, which we gave the family along with a print of the film. We showed the film outdoors, and the backyard was packed with family and friends who came to see it. WF

The film has been used over the years, but now a film projector and a 16-mmillimeter film is a thing of the past. WF

The film has been shown at virtually every film festival for documentary films, and it has been used in classrooms all over the nation and overseas. It is considered a classic on black religion and black music. It has been widely circulated and continues to be used in ways that Folkstreams will certainly help expand. WF

The film is an artifact from another era. Film festivals and distributing films have changed so much with technology. Putting it on Folkstreams is a significant step for not only this film, but for all documentary filmmakers. WF

I think this film is an important part my work as a folklorist. In exploring individual artists, Ray Lum, James “Son Ford” Thomas, and Fannie Bell Chapman are three of the people I worked most extensively with in terms of interviews, photography, and film. Mrs. Chapman was one of my spiritual leaders and teachers. WF

She told me I had “power eyes”, that I had the power to heal with my eyes. She said, ”I know it because I have that power.” She told me that she had the power to control the weather, that she could summon a thunderstorm, which she did while we were there. And she had some powers like that that she never used—she used only healing powers. But she could do more than heal if she chose to. She and I had a very special relationship that I always appreciated very much. WF

As a folklorist I think she is one of the people who shaped my life very deeply. It was one of the highlights of my experience as a folklorist to have known her over several decades and to have done some of my early recordings with her. Some of my first recordings in the ‘60s were with Mrs. Chapman and others and her community. James “Black Boy” Hughes was a blues singer whom I photographed and recorded, and I use his comments in my “Blues from the Delta.” So I see this film and Mrs. Chapman’s life as a special part of what I did as a folklorist and of what Judy Peiser and I did in a collaborative way at the Center for Southern Folklore. WF

I think this is the longest film-other than the “James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, Delta Blues Singer” film--that I did in the Sixties. It’s more of a portrait of her as a person and of her family as a community, rather than a performance film per se. My films Two Black Churches and Give my Poor Heart Ease are more punchy. They tend to deliver high-impact scenes with some narrative, but mostly musical, tightly-cut footage. This is a much more relaxed, lengthy film. It takes more concentration to watch this film and to stick with it for the full 40 minutes. But if you are interested in black music and faith healing, there are scenes in the film that are important. I think it has a role that is different from many of the other films that I have done. WF

It is tougher to show this film publicly because it takes more time to see it. The films that I did at Yale, four films that include “Give my Poor Heart Ease” and “Two Black Churches”, are easier to use because they are all 20 minutes in length, and you can slot them into a lecture and have a 40-minute presentation on blues or the black religious experience. WF

I always return to the African proverb, “When an old man or woman dies, a library burns to the ground.” That is certainly the case with Fannie Bell Chapman. Thankfully, this film captures her life in ways that I think will be increasingly important to have in the future. WF

Because Mrs. Chapman connects to new Orleans and to its black musical and cultural tradition, assumes even greater importance in the aftermath of Katrina. It reminds us how fragile cultural systems are when we consider that the whole infrastructure of music in New Orleans and especially in the 9th Ward, where so much of this music was nurtured, has been forever changed. Those worlds in New Orleans are connected to Mrs. Chapman’s world. Although she was hundreds of miles from New Orleans, culturally she was very closely connected its music and culture. So we know now, more than ever, why it is so important that we preserve this heritage. WF