Birth of a Film: A Grant in Search of a Subject
Upon the completion of Being A Joines: A Life in the Brushy Mountains in l980, Dan Patterson, Allen Tullos, and Tom Davenport began to consider possibilities for a new project with a vital, community-centered tradition within the South. Prompted by the field research of UNC graduate student Brett Sutton with black Primitive Baptist congregations in North Carolina and Virginia, Dan felt this community of believers might make a compelling subject for filmmaking. We applied for and received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to begin work with the Primitive Baptists. This project was not to be. Between the writing and the funding of our grant, our subject churches suffered a religious schism, and they became fearful of risking further turmoil within a loose federation of congregations already known for "multiplying by dividing." The churches chose not to contend with camera and sound crew intrusion or with the spotlighting of individuals and particular churches that would come with filmmaking.
Finding The Golden Echoes Quartet
Tom Davenport phoned the Folk Arts Division of the NEA and told them that there would be no film on the proposal we had submitted. The director of the NEA Folk Arts program responded that instead of giving the money back, we should try to find another subject for the grant. Scouting for another subject took over a year, and led us across the Southeast to consider sacred harp and country music singers, camp-meeting revivalists, outsider artists, and traditional pottery makers. We were drawn especially to the thriving, black, non-professional gospel scene and began to conceive of a film focused on the music, repertory, and performances of a single quartet group. For the past half-century, gospel performers have had an important role in the African-American community, especially in the South. "Black gospel song," as Dan Patterson has written, "is an interdenominational movement" with much of its activity taking place "in religious concerts held in churches, school and municipal auditoriums, and community centers. Its stars become nationally known recording artists, but the movement rests on the base of extremely active local music making in virtually all communities with a strong black presence."
Despite all the activity of gospel singing in the South, very little historical or ethnographic work exists about this lively tradition. Hoping to find a gospel group close to the Chapel Hill-Durham area, students and faculty from the UNC Curriculum in Folklore and Patterson and Tullos attended concerts in several towns in central North Carolina, an area rich in gospel music history and with dozens of contemporary quartets.
After much listening to and discussion about several excellent groups, we identified the Golden Echoes of Franklinton (a community about twenty-five miles northeast of Chapel Hill) as an especially strong local quartet, and one versatile through the range of traditional and present-day gospel styles. The Echoes had previously worked with folklorists. All of them had learned music traditionally "by ear" and were articulate about their songs and their performance styles. As a representative of the project, Daniel Patterson talked with the Echoes' chief spokesman, John Landis, about our interest and our earlier work.
As our conversations developed with Mr. Landis, and soon with Mr. Malone and other members of the Echoes, we discussed the purpose and substance of the envisioned film. We imagined a documentary that would be shown on public television, at film festivals, in classrooms, and at community centers, libraries, and museums. The Echoes would have videotape copies for sale or distribution as they chose. We included in our grant proposals artists' honoraria to be paid to the Echoes. There was the possibility of royalties, but in documentary projects our experience suggested these would be quite small. We proposed to work with the group by filming and recording rehearsals and performances, and by interviewing them about the meanings of their music. We didn't know how long the project might take. We were pretty slow workers. Being A Joines had required five years of part-time attention. Yet, because we conceived of the film about the Echoes as consisting in large part of musical performances in several contexts, we felt that this project might be completed more quickly.
The Echoes discussed the project among themselves and decided to participate. They were enthusiastic about the film's documentary importance and also felt that it would give their group a boost. In 1957, they had recorded an album with Savoy Records of New Jersey, but they no longer had even one copy of this disc. (We were able to locate the Savoy record, "Ride Away to Heaven," for dubbing from Ray Funk, a blues and gospel enthusiast in Alaska.) The group had released a later album, somewhat less representative of the Golden Echoes' sound, for Rounder Records. In keeping with the current practice of serious local gospel quartets, every year or so the Echoes have released a forty-five rpm record with one song on each side. Produced in a Durham studio at the group's expense and bearing the GEM (Golden Echoes Music) label, these recordings quickly sell out to concert audiences The Echoes no longer had copies of all of their records. The members of the group were enthusiastic about having a film made and the possibility that with this film might come another recording session.
Also working in the filmmakers' favor was the Echoes' interest in a wider reputation. A few times each year the group travels outside of North Carolina to perform in cities such as Bridgeport, Connecticut, or Akron, Ohio, where they have family ties. Although they did not want to stay on the road to the detriment of their jobs and families, they felt that a film and the accom-panying publicity might gain them a few more invitations. So they decided to participate. In 1981, with the approval of the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, we turned our initial $30,000 grant toward the production of what was to become A Singing Stream.
Unimagined at the time were the directions in which the film finally led.