Song to Song

Stay Prayed Up is All about One God, One Race, and a Multitude of Voices in Harmony

Phil Cook grew up in a tiny town in northern Wisconsin. He loved music, but the songs he grew up singing in church didn’t do much for him. When he discovered gospel music, though, ironically enough through the movie Sister Act, the multitude of voices coming together in harmony with so much energy – well, it just grabbed him.

He later encountered a gospel group from North Carolina who embodied that consummate blend of musical talent, enthusiasm, and foot-stomping, hand-clapping vitality, except this time it wasn’t a Hollywood production, but the real thing flowing out of hearts that loved God and loved one another. The sounds of the Branchettes, he later reflected, and the stories of their lives, especially the person of Lena Mae Perry, their long-running spiritual and vocal leader, spoke of deep human and musical history. He realized he had much to learn.

By then Phil was a recording artist and producer. To his great delight, he got to perform with Ma Perry, as most people called her, at some pre-pandemic gospel festivals around North Carolina, and that gave him an idea. Would she be willing to make an album with him?

Ma Perry, well more than twice his age, just nodded her head, steady as you please, and said, “That’d be fine.” And so, they did. The result, Stay Prayed Up, is a kind of hybrid live-recorded video album and documentary about both the Branchettes and Ma Perry’s nearly fifty-year ministry of serving the Lord with all her heart, soul, and voice.

A Lifetime of Songs

Lena Mae Bennet Perry grew up in a singing family. She and her two siblings sang songs they’d learned from their Grandaddy, rehearsing them in their Daddy’s corn patch, or while they harvested tobacco leaves, or with homemade instruments when they weren’t doing chores. They also sang in their home church, the Long Branch Disciples of Christ, and then in churches around the Raleigh area. Locals called them “The Bennet Three.”

In 1973, she formed the Branchettes from the Long Branch women’s choir. The Branchettes were small in number, ranging from three to seven or eight over the years, but they were large in presence and sound. They travelled all over North Carolina, but also to other states and on one occasion to Dublin Ireland, singing old hymns and African American spirituals in churches, retirement homes, outdoor venues, and anywhere else the Lord saw fit to open for them a door.

The name comes from something Ma Perry’s own mother had always said, “Keep yourself prayed up.” When Ma Perry was little, the KKK still had a presence in the area. Billboards signed by the KKK told locals to “Resist Integration.” She didn’t know what it all meant, but she did sense that they meant something fearful. “We couldn’t do much about it,” she says, “all we could do was pray.” Today those signs are long gone, but she is still there and keeping herself prayed up with a grateful and forgiving heart.

The Unity of the Greater Things

Stay Prayed Up is not a film about race. It’s primarily a tribute to one woman’s humble faith through the vicissitudes of life. Ma Perry has marked 83 years on planet earth, and she has trusted the Lord to take care of her through them all. At the same time, the story the film tells inevitably rests against a backdrop connected to race – partly because cultural revolutionaries with megaphones are trying to make everything about race these days, and partly because the film was a joint project between whites and blacks. The really cool thing about that second part is, nobody gives ground to what the race hustlers are shouting. Instead, they have come together around the greater things that unite them – their Christian faith and their love for music.

Unless you have a cold, cold heart, you will find yourself smiling and tapping your feet as you watch it all play out. And even if your heart has cooled to lukewarm, or become jaded over the state of the world, or doubtful about the whole Christianity thing, you may find yourself thinking some new thoughts as you listen and watch. Consider this excerpt from directors D.L. Anderson’s and Matt Darning’s joint Directors’ Statement:

The power of Gospel music, prayer and spirituality is really about presence, or the ability to be in touch with a sense of the infinite. This belief is what drew us into the expansive ministry of Mother Lena Mae Perry. Her voice as a bandleader with The Branchettes, is the most apparent, awesome form of her presence. It shakes and reawakens a sense of wonder without fail. How is this small, slight, elderly woman singing with such strength and sureness? It is, like faith, hard to comprehend. And it also embodies many forms; carried into loving community, in quiet, steadfast devotion, in shared prayer and through devastating loss. It is both profound and simple. It is why we made this film and the reason we managed to make it at all.

We are both at a middle age in our lives, with growing families and complicated relationships with organized religion. We struggle with doubt and deadlines and, like a lot of humans, are moving through the world trying to find something to believe in; failing that, at least something to eat. The first time we sat down with Mother Perry and Phil Cook to discuss the idea of film it was around a meal — Smithfield’s Chicken & BBQ for inquiring Southerners. We bowed our heads in prayer, for the first time in a while, and we listened to Mother Perry’s unique, poetic cadence. “It’s me again Lord.” We both felt a shift in time and a deeper sense of ease as familiar as it was surprising. The Irish poet and theologian John O'Donohue once said that, “prayer is a practice and being unpracticed means being more desperate for it.”

This shift in our presence would be a guiding sensibility and question for Stay Prayed Up. We knew the film would be driven by a dynamic concert experience, but how could we also center this simple, steadfast spiritual practice of Mother Perry in a way that speaks to those who are desperate to hear it, regardless of their faith or background? Mother Perry has a real straight line approach to her ministry and her life, which are truly one in the same. She does not deviate from her path, nor will she be moved. From a storytelling perspective, that can seem like a challenge in presenting a compelling narrative. But we both saw this straightforward nature as her unique strength, especially if placed within a community navigating the unknowns of life and the larger inequalities of a society that this sacred music serves to heal and uplift.

In the midst of a global pandemic and a personal health crisis, we struggled mightily to move this film forward. Mother Perry would say there was no need to fuss. “It’ll work itself out,” was her common refrain.

And, indeed, it did all work itself out. Phil Cook wanted to honor her dedication, her wholehearted faithfulness to continue doing what she does until she’s no longer here to do it, and I think he’s done it beautifully. “Her whole life,” he said at the end of the project, “she’s strengthened the ties between human beings … person to person, day to day, song to song, over the course of a life.”

Strengthening ties between human beings is sorely needed in our day, and it is indeed something to imitate and to honor. Stay Prayed Up makes no mention of slavery or Juneteenth, but it is fittingly debuting in theaters in Chicago and North Carolina this weekend. After that, it will be available for streaming on iTunes and Amazon beginning July 5th. Make a note of it, and prepare to sing along.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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