Goin’ Back Home in “Just An Old Sweet Song” (1976)

Ja’Qaylin Harrison, Staff Writer

The late film and television icon Cicely Tyson shines brightly in her role as Priscilla in the 1976 television film, “Just An Old Sweet Song.

By the 1970s, it was a rite of passage for every American household to have at least one television set. On weeknights, children ran for popcorn while mothers fixed drinks and made various other snacks. Fathers were either on their way home or just walking through the door when the theme song for “The Waltons” began. By the beginning of the first act, the entire family was staring in collective awe at the wooden box set. 

“Just An Old Sweet Song” follows the Simmons family as they trade in their streetlights and easily accessible restaurants for two weeks of “slopping the hog” in the Deep South. 

The film opens with the matriarch of the Simmons family, Priscilla (Tyson), welcoming her mother (Beah Richards) into their inner-city apartment. Hugs and kisses are abundant as the entire family surrounds their maternal forebear. 

After two days, Grandma makes clear the intentions behind her visit. It is revealed that she is on the verge of experiencing one of life’s few certainties: death. In an effort to give her a peaceful departure, the family makes the trek from Detroit to the dirt roads of Dixie. 

Upon their arrival, they find reality waiting on Grandma’s doorstep. The patriarch of the family, Nathaniel (Robert Hooks), struggles to let go of his long-held vexation towards the land that made him. This, in combination with their eldest son’s yearning for independence, forces the family to question the validity of their lives back home.

As the sun goes down, Grandma hangs up her earthly shoes and steps barefoot into the heavenly realm. The family is then left to decide whether they want to sell their inheritance or continue to cultivate a life among the pines and maples. 

Ultimately, the family gives in to fate and settles into the country life. 

“Just An Old Sweet Song” is a revolutionary film, in that it does not allow racism to be the root cause of the family’s demise. It shows us that African Americans, like the Bradys on “The Brady Bunch,” are capable of tackling life’s chagrins without drugs, alcohol or violence. 

Priscilla and Nathaniel’s relationship exemplifies what many African Americans yearn to see on their TV screens: a mother who isn’t on drugs and a father who isn’t abusive. Sounds like an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” to me. That goes to show how uncommon this type of narrative is in American cinema.

It’s not like “Coffy” (1973) or any of the other popular black films of the time, but something much more. It’s a reminder that sometimes home has all of the answers we seek in faraway lands.

All we have to do is open our eyes and place our feet on the ground.