Interview with Bertha Landis and family history background.
In the course of our interviews in the 1980s, we had discovered that it was Bertha who had made singers of the Landis children. When they were small she began to teach them the traditional repertory and the singing of parts. They practiced daily to her encouragement. She told us, for instance, of her husband's trying to put an end to a late-night singing session in the bedroom overhead so that he could go to sleep. "Cut out that racket!" he would shout.
"Don't get after them," Mrs. Landis would say. "They may be great musicians someday."
"As the boys grew up," she recalled, "I saw that they had a talent for singing, I wanted them to be involved in something that was worthwhile, something that would bring them joy and happiness as they grew in years." Her father and uncles had been shape-note singers. She herself was an active church singer.
"I saw," Bertha Landis said, that the children "had this singing stream coming from both sides of my family. My father and my uncles were music teachers and singers." Bertha Landis had given us a title for the film.
"If I could go back over my life again," Mrs. Landis told us, "I would do more towards singing. If my mother had lived I would have finished college [she briefly attended Saint Augustine's College in Raleigh] and learned more about singing." Instead, Bertha Mangum had to return home and in 1917 married a young farmer named Coy Landis. She was nineteeen, he twenty-one.
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How She and Her Husband Get a Farm
It was Bertha Landis who, in 1939, initiated the family's move out of the pattern of tenant farming for a white landowner. "Before we moved here," she recalls, "we lived with the president of the Adams Tobacco Factory in Oxford. We stayed there ten years and raised tobacco. We'd raise three or four hundred bushels of sweet potatoes, a hundred gallons of molasses, and all the other vegetables that we'd need. When I told my husband we should have a farm of our own he'd say, 'Well, we can't buy no farm now, 'cause we got so many children and are trying to send them to school.'
" So," she continues, "one day I was reading in the News and Observer from
Raleigh that you could buy a farm through the Farm Security Administration, and the more children you had, the more likely you could get the farm. I told Coy, 'This is our time.'
"He said, 'We can't. We'd never pay for a farm.'
"I said, 'We can put our application in.'
"So we went and put our application in. When they come down to the house to interview us, they had to take an inventory of everything we had. I had a whole lot of canned fruit upstairs, a big circle of it. Well, they saw that and put it in their inventory. All such as that. And then they went back. We didn't hear no more from them for a month. Then we heard that we passed. Out of ten families, they chose six white and four black. And we were one of the black families that passed.
"We wanted this place right here," Mrs. Landis remembers. "We wanted to live here. Wasn't nothing here then but an old tin-roof house. We knew the lady who lived here and found out that she wanted to sell this place. My father and my husband went to talk with her. She asked $2,000 for 146 acres. And my husband says, 'That's too much.' So they started away without buying it. She overtook them and said she would take $1,800, and that's how we got it. The FSA got this company, the Godwin Company from Durham, North Carolina, to build the house, and we moved here in l940.
The acquisition of land and the growing of food crops and livestock, as well as the cash crop of some sixteen acres of tobacco, laid the foundation for the family's economic stability and relative independence.
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Her Children Go North for Jobs But Eventually Return
The history of the Landis family's ascent is told in A Singing Stream primarily through the stories of Bertha Landis and her children. Such scenes as John's tour of his home and his discussion of the Echoes' uniforms, Doshie's telling of the tablecloth made with flour sacks, and Fleming and Robert's swapping now-humorous memories of doing without shoes and pants all speak to the contrast between the hard times of life on their Granville County farm and the long climb that family members have made in their lives. "There was eleven of us," recalls John Landis. "We stayed home until we were grown—age twenty-one back then. Fortunately we didn't really have to go away to work to send money back home because things was going better here—raising our own garden, having hogs. We didn't eat fancy, but we had plenty.
"Years ago, you wouldn't find very many people doing public work around here because there wasn't much public work going on at that time. In the 1940s, after we had gathered in our crop, we could go out and make us some money by helping somebody else gather their tobacco or cotton. You didn't find many young men going out and finding a job unless they left from around here and went North."
Although the farm loan was financed originally for thirty-five years, through the work of their large family the Landises paid for it by 1960. By the 1970s, a small neighborhood community of modest houses and mobile homes stood on land once part of the Landis homestead. As the Landis children began to "come of age" and leave home, the family farmed less and less land. Their father, Coy Landis, sold a portion of the farm as residential lots to several black families. He also built and stocked a fish pond for the use of his family and neighbors. Coy Landis died in 1977. At the time we were filming A Singing Stream in the early 1980s, four of Coy and Bertha Landis's children and one of her grandchildren lived in homes within sight of the "homeplace" where Bertha Landis continued to live with her son Truzell who commuted to work in Durham.
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