"A Singing Stream": Rooted in the Songs
By Richard Harrington
The Washington Post
There is so much song, laughter, love and genial warmth in "A Singing Stream: A Black Family Chronicle" that your TV set could very easily overheat.
This hour-long documentary chronicles the remarkable Landis family from the rich tobacco flatlands of Granville, County, N.C. The focus is on the family matriarch, 86-year-old Mother Bertha Landis, her gospel-singing sons, tale-spinning daughters and assorted grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but they also stand in for many extended black families in the rural south.
Director Tom Davenport has managed to capture the Landises – at a family reunion, performing gospel concerts, going about the business of their daily lives – without intruding or making them self-conscious. That allows him to reflect not only on the strength of this particular family, but to use it as a microcosm reflecting the slow process of social and cultural change in this region.
Mother Landis talks about a time several generations back when she and her husband became one of the first black families in Granville County to move from tenant to landowner status, but she also talks about the nourishment and enduring strength that singing has provided.
The sons and daughters have spread out to their own comfortable homes, mostly close at hand, sometimes states away, yet the familial roots remain powerfully strong. And one of her grandsons talks about being in the first integrated high school classes in town, and how that simple civil right proved costly to youthful friendships.
While there is a subtle political sensibility to "A Singing Stream," the dominant theme is the strength of the extended family, particularly one with deep religious faith. Three of Mother Landis’ sons are in the classic gospel quartet the Golden Echoes, and wonderful, intricate songs flow freely through this film in assorted contexts: the Echoes in concert, rehearsing in a garage, working with the Echoes of Heaven, a female quartet also made up of family members.
Anytime two or more Landises start talking the conversation seems to turn into song. That song is always joyful, rich and nourishing, and it’s not hard to see how positive values have flowed through four generations and, one suspects, more to come.
A Singing Steam
By Frye Gaillard
The Charlotte Observer
Last Sunday in Oxford, N.C., in a faintly seedy-looking place called the Orpheum Theater, they unveiled a short and important film that will begin making the rounds in North Carolina.
It’s called, "A Singing Stream," and it’s a 57-minute black history documentary that focuses only obliquely on the civil rights revolution or on the prejudice and deprivations that blacks have suffered in the past.
Those elements are present, of course. They have to be in any documentation of the struggles of black life.
But the major thrust of this little epic is something far more positive, far more uplifting. It is the story of the strength of one black family – the Landis clan in Granville County, N.C., which has been making gospel music for the past several generations.
Music is the Glue
Splicing together interviews with Mrs. Bertha Landis, the 86-year-old family matriarch, with stirring performance scenes of her sons in a group called The Golden Echoes, the film makes the point that for the Landis family, music was the bond, the glue in the sense of history and connection that offered strength and endurance during difficult times.
With their roots running deep into the rich tobacco flatlands of eastern North Carolina, the Landises made their way from tenant farming to landowner status in the hard years of the Depression and World War II.
They survived – with their sense of kinship and identity intact – the dispersal of family members for jobs in the North and the rapid racial changes of the civil rights years.
Today, they are still making music, and next Sunday afternoon in Shelby (at 4 p.m. in Mobley’s Chapel at 413 Weathers St.), The Golden Echoes will perform live at another public showing of "The Singing Stream."
Implicitly, that performance will make a point that is often overlooked or underplayed, even in such splendid black history documentaries as "Eyes on the Prize." The point is that any list of the ingredients of black progress in America, there is probably none more important – or currently more threatened – than the historic strength of the extended black family.
That idea first came home to me last year when I was researching a book on the history of school desegregation in Charlotte, and virtually every black hero of the story – Julius Chambers, Kathleen Crosby, Darius Swann – came from a strong and indefatigable family.
When Dorothy Counts, for example, was preparing to break the color barrier of an all-white high school, her father called the family together around an old mahogany table – a family heirloom several generations old – and he told her in effect: No matter what they try to do to you tomorrow, no matter what they say, no matter what names they call you, just remember who you are.
And when the mobs did descend with their racial epithets, Dorothy felt less fear than pity – a beneficent, childlike certainty that they wouldn’t do these things if they had been raised a little better.
Hedonism and Hustle
Middle class families are subject to the same disorienting pressures and confusions of values as their white counterparts. And for poor blacks caught in the welfare culture – a system generous enough to help assure survival, but stingy enough to be devoid of any hope – families frequently fall victim to a self-destructive ethic of hedonism and hustle.
No single film, of course, can undo that damage. But "The Singing Stream" is a reminder of a critically important heritage, and if enough people see it, it has sufficient force to open a few eyes.
- 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
- Changing Course
- The Emergence of Gospel Quartets: Praising God in the Twentieth Century
- Observations on Editing