Having arrived at a working consensus between filmmakers and musicians, we began by filming and audiotaping interviews and rehearsals with the Golden Echoes during two trips to Creedmoor in 1981. Scenes from our first trip that appear in the finished film include John Landis's tour of his house—with discussion of his grandfather's clock and of the Echoes' uniforms, Bertha Landis's sweeping her yard and singing "Child of the King," the rehearsal in John's garage ("Going Up to Meet Him"), the family's singing together in Mrs. Landis's living room ("Union in Heaven" and "Mighty Close to Heaven"), and John and Andrew Green's visit to Shelly's Men's Store in Creedmoor to try on the new uniforms for the Echoes' annual anniversary concert—the highlight of their performance year.
Our major effort in the second trip to Creedmoor in 1981 was the filming of the August anniversary concert. We imagined that this concert would provide the centerpiece of the film about the Echoes. We discussed the planning for this event with John and his nephew Kenneth, listing and timing the songs to be sung, noting the repertory of the gospel groups that were to appear as the Echoes' guests that evening. We anticipated filming several of the Echoes' numbers in their entirety and sampling the performances of the other groups to suggest the event's range. We had never tried to film musical concerts before and, with our small budget and lack of technical sophistication, we found the situation difficult but, we hoped, manageable. The Echoes' sound system was limited, so we decided to rent some state-of-the-art equipment from Duke University along with audio technicians to make an eight track performance recording that could be re-mixed later. We also hired a second cameraman, Zack Krieger, and a professional gaffer, David Anderson, for this shoot in a local school gymnasium.
With vans loaded with equipment, crew, and students, we arrived to set up hours ahead of the Sunday evening concert. When the dressed-for-church, almost all-black rural audience began to arrive, we were still trying to set up. Dirty, sweaty, wearing jeans and tee shirts, hanging and testing bright lights from the ceiling, we began to feel the extent of our intrusion.
The concert was filled with small disasters. The on-stage audio monitors failed at crucial spots, singers sang out of key, the Echoes' drummer couldn't hear the lead singers' pacing, the group lacked spirit on key songs, and the audience seemed uneasy and distanced from the stage because of the spotlighting and the new sound system's large speakers. The important call and response relationship between African-American performer and audience was fractured. We filmed some visually strong moments on both sync cameras, but the sound and presence of the event were unsatisfactory When the evening was over, we had spent over five thousand dollars in professional fees, equipment rentals, and film stock. Although not a large sum for commercial filmmakers, this represented more than one sixth of our entire grant. The only material from that concert that made it to the final film is John Landis's entrance into the auditorium, some audience cutaways, and an over-dubbed version of the Baptist Hymnal standard "The Old Rugged Cross."
Tom Davenport Has a Crisis
The next year on the fourth Sunday in August, we filmed the Golden Echoes' anniversary concert again, more modestly. We borrowed a sound system from public radio station WUNC-FM and the Echoes gave better performances, but again the event lacked the excitement we had seen the group elicit at several unfilmed concerts.
After this third shooting trip of the film, the concert in August of 1982, Tom Davenport had an epiphany when he discussed the project while riding back to Virginia with Candace Waid and Barry Dornfeld. He was depressed about the film on the Golden Echoes. He realized that a better film could be made centered around Bertha Landis and her family. He called Dan Patterson and Allen Tullos and expressed his doubts about the film on the Echoes. "I just don't know," Tom said. "We made a mistake. This film on the Echoes is not going to work. We're not going to bring it off. It's a calamity. We're not getting good footage. We're not getting good sound. I don't see any pattern in it." Having been stymied before at various stages in our films, we have come to expect such long moments of doubt as signals for the need of an imaginative reorganization the project.
Questions about the film's direction had began to emerge quite early for both Allen and Tom. They felt that the potential for the film lay less with the Golden Echoes as a quartet who sang gospel, than with the Landis family's history as an African-American family in the twentieth-century South. From the first time they met Mrs. Landis in June of 1981, Tom and Allen had been interviewing her extensively, gathering her life story, her recollections, her thoughts on music. We all agreed that this was material, but Dan was worried about the possible change of direction. Because we had proposed a film about the Echoes, Dan knew that the shift in focus would pose problems in the relations between Landis family members and non-family members of the Golden Echoes group. So he resisted the shift, suggesting that we go deeper into the meaning of the music and into the histories of all the families involved, not just the Landises.
Tom and Allen interviewed Ronald Perry and his mother. They interviewed Andrew Green and Luther Foster. Then they filmed Ronald Perry, the most articulate of the Kittrell group, working on his farm, tending his tobacco crop, castrating pigs, recalling his family's history and his own teenage adventures in fast cars. They filmed John Landis's talking about his twenty years of work in a vinyl upholstery factory and the wrenching accident which ended his industrial job and left his arm in chronic, disabling pain. They filmed in the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company in Durham where Kenneth Daniel worked as a computer operator and shift supervisor since 1973. Since the turn of the century, black men and women in the Carolina Piedmont have often found their first "public work" (wage paying, non-farm) jobs in the tobacco factories of Durham. In considering the settings where members of the Echoes worked, we also began to make arrangements to film singer and songwriter Claude Landis at the Murdock Center for Retarded Children, a state-operated facility at nearby Butner.
Soon we realized that the story and the cast were becoming too diffuse and too large for a one-hour documentary that would also include several full musical performances. Could we expect viewers to remember the names and relations of so many people, the strands of so many story lines, or the significance of so many locations?
In the summer of 1983, as we were seeking coherence and continuity for the film, Ronald Perry was killed by his wife in a domestic fight. Perry, in his late thirties, looked considerably younger than the other singers in the Golden Echoes and was atypical in pursuing a flashier, more secular life. Did we want to address in the film the issues raised by his death? Was this another dimension that we had to include?
As we were considering these questions we also asked whether we should make one more attempt at filming the anniversary concert. Would we be throwing good money after bad? Perhaps this time we would get something useful, something to combine with the best moments we had filmed at the other concerts. Perhaps we would get a strong performance. We decided to be prepared with a scaled-down effort.
The 1983 concert was cathartic. It followed Ronald Perry's death by a few weeks and was dedicated to him. The Echoes wore black suits. The atmosphere in the G. C. Hawley Elementary School gymnasium was charged, the group's performances were excellent, and this time the unexpected favored us.
Bertha Landis's granddaughter Karen Landis Stallings had come to the family reunion that year with her sisters and the other members of her all female gospel group—the Echoes of Heaven—from Akron, Ohio. Under the direction of Karen's father, Fleming Landis (b. 1925), they rehearsed in Kenneth Daniel's mobile home on the day of the family reunion picnic, and we filmed their rehearsal ("Trouble in My Way"). They performed at the anniversary concert and were in the audience when it came time for the Golden Echoes to take the stage. In the middle of John's finale to the song "Going Up to Meet Him"—a song expressive of not only the religious beliefs but also of the achievements of the Landis family—Karen jumped up to join John. Claude Landis waved the other members of the Echoes of Heaven to the stage to take over the background singers' role. The scene was spontaneous, the stuff of documentary filmmaking. Finally, a strong performance! But did we get it on film?
An Amazing Performance Saved by an Overdub
We were working with a very simplified sound capability at this 1983 concert. Into one channel of a Nagra stero recorder came both the general audience sound from microphones suspended from the gym rafters and sound from a hand-held, directional microphone capable of focusing on particular members of the concert audience. A second Nagra channel recorded a single, mixed-on-the spot track into which all the on-stage musicians' and singers' microphones were fed. Although the recording of the evening's performance gave us a vivid presence, the lead singing sounded too subordinate for use with the close-ups. We were all terribly disappointed. How could it be fixed?
We decided to edit with the inferior sound and overdub and re-mix a small section of the concert footage for the finished film. The following year, we went into a sound studio at Duke University with the Golden Echoes and Karen Landis (who sings with John on "Going Up to Meet Him"). They listened to themselves and sang over their own voices, skillfully recreating their concert improvisations. John Landis made notes on an envelope (how many repetitions of a phrase, at what word he entered or stopped singing) and he and Karen worked from these. We recorded one track at a time and then mixed it together with our concert ambience. Filmmakers recognize this brief overlaid section, most viewers do not.
Our filming of the August 1983 concert did not escape another technical failure. Midway through, our second camera, mounted on a tripod on the gym floor, jammed. Tom Davenport's hand-held camera had to carry the scene by itself. Fortunately Tom didn't run out of film during the performance or make mistakes in shooting this scene. With the exception of one or two cutaways, the performance of "Going Up to Meet Him" is one continuous take. Our year-to-year persistence and the similarity of one year's anniversary concert to those of preceding years enabled us to assemble a filmic scene from several years' footage that gives viewers a strong feeling of this key event
The Focus Shifts to Bertha Landis and Her Family
The concert tour de force did not solve our larger dilemma in coping with the death of Ronald Perry and the complex cast of characters in the Echoes group. As they looked for a center to the film and a meaning to the music, Allen and Tom found themselves drawn more and more to Bertha Landis and to the story of her family's ascent.
As we saw the shift in direction the film was taking, we felt uneasy about the consequences for relations within the Golden Echoes. We talked with John Landis, showed him our footage, and explained the numerous organizational and technical problems. He agreed the Echoes would not want their music represented at less than their standard of performance. He was willing for the film to take another year or two to finish rather than settle for weak material. As to the new emphasis upon the family, John Landis felt this could be permitted so long as the Echoes were not simply pushed into the background. He felt, as did the filmmakers, that the Echoes' music would be one of the strengths of the film and perhaps the first attraction for potential viewers. John pointed out that the Kittrell side of the Golden Echoes also had its "singing stream," in the kin ties among Johnny Malone, Luther Foster, and Ronald Perry, and through the musical influence of Mr. Malone's father, flowing on to Malone's young son. We were, however, unable to introduce and develop the family histories of the non-Landis Echoes.
Several of the Golden Echoes were understandably disappointed that the project had become a Landis family film with appearances by the Echoes rather than a film devoted to the musical group. We felt that while the film simply could not present a larger cast of characters, it could stand for a broader historical experience. The story of Bertha and Coy Landis and their family provided a way to view a portion of African-American history. In working out these developments with the Golden Echoes, John took the brunt of the criticism, Claude sought to harmonize the tensions, and, after a time, the group restored its equilibrium.
- Watch A Singing Stream
- Lay of the Land
- Teaching Guide with Excerpt
- Study Guide: Junior High Level
- A Singing Stream: Discussion Guide
- Birth of a Film: A Grant in Search of a Subject
- Bertha Landis
- The Emergence of Gospel Quartets: Praising God in the Twentieth Century
- Observations on Editing