By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2014)
Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises.
This is really two films in one. On a very personal level (similar in tone to a 2013 SIFF documentary selection, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell), Harjo investigates a family story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962.
After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inform the second level of Harjo’s film.
Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, he traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as a fascinating history lesson, as well as a moving personal journey.