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Land and Song: A Singing Stream in Creedmoor, North Carolina

By Karl Galloway

Bertha Landis (center) with her children in 1985
TOM DAVENPORT

This two-part documentary tells the story of the Landis’, an African-American family from Creedmoor, North Carolina. The family has always been bursting with talent and as the matriarch, Bertha Mangum Landis says, “my children had a singing stream from both sides of the family.” The family, eight boys and three girls, possessed exceptional musical ability, leading some of the men to form the gospel quartet “The Golden Echoes.” Their songs, which included classics like “The Old Rugged Cross,” and “Mighty Close to Heaven,” are spiritual and ear-catching. While the group’s leader John Landis described their dress as “not flashy,” their music speaks for itself and invites the listener in to celebrate with the performers.

Sometimes, a tradition needs a place to root.

In the Landis story, talent, faith, family, and community all take center stage. Just as essential is the land that Bertha Landis and her husband raised their family on, land that they acquired in 1938 through the Farm Security Administration. The FSA was created in 1937 as a New Deal agency and was perhaps most famous for its corps of influential photographers, Walker Evans (famous for his photography in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) being among them. Early efforts of the FSA included collectivizing government-owned land and helping poor farmers buy property.

This was the case of the Landis family. It allowed them some autonomy and to grow crops and community at a time when many poor white and black Americans were tenant farmers, an occupation that bred perpetual debt, restricting social and economic growth.

The Landis’ were selected by the FSA as one of ten families (six white, four black) that would receive land in Granville County. As Bertha Landis put it, “that was the beginning of black people owning homes.” The Landis land was at odds with the outside world. As different generations of the family explain, leaving the enclave of the family farm meant entering spaces where they could expect to have racial epithets thrown at them, and where they had to guard against violence. Jim Crow laws made voting and living extremely difficult, and in some cases, racial tensions drove members of the Landis family to move north.

Today, Black Americans still face obstacles in gaining land, and in retaining their property, land that has been passed down by word of mouth without title or deed. The lack of these legal documents leaves the land vulnerable to legal processes that can strip families of their property. Now, as then, property is doubly precious to those communities who have faced exclusion and setbacks in the nation’s history. The Landis family has maintained their farm, and their legacy continues, bolstered by family and a place to practice art and community.

The second part of the series continues the story, and checks in with the most recent generations of Landis’ at their annual reunion. The land is still there, the house is too. “The Echoes of Heaven,” an all-female quartet and part of the singing stream, carries on the tradition. The conversation jumps between generations, reflecting interspersed footage from Part One. The Landis family members are spread far and wide but to a certain extent their lives still revolve around the land that was purchased in 1938, and the tradition that grew from it.

For licensing, film rights and permissions, contact Tom Davenport, the distributor Davenport Films, or Folkstreams.

A Singing Stream (1986)

  • Film by: Tom Davenport
  • Produced by: Davenport Films with Dan Patterson, Allen Tullos, and UNC Curriculum in Folklore
  • Cinematographer: Tom Davenport with Zach Kreiger and Tom Rankin
  • Sound: Allen Tullos with Barry Dornfeld and Brett Sutton
  • Editor: Tom Davenport and Marcia Neidley
  • Original Format: Film: 16mm
  • ©Copyright 1986, Tom Davenport

The Singing Stream: Reunion (2016)

  • Film by: Tom Davenport
  • Produced by: The Landis Family
  • Cinematographer: Tom Davenport
  • Sound: Iverson Landis, Sarah Bell, Barry Dornfeld, Thomas Owens
  • Editor: Tom Davenport
  • Other Credits: Family producers: Ken Daniel, Dennis Daniel, Efrem Daniel, Iverson Landis. Advisors: Dan and Beverly Patterson.
  • Funding: The National Endowment for the Arts
  • Original Format: AVCHD
  • ©2016, Folkstreams, The Landis family, & Tom Davenport

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