a tattered flag flaps
over the broken tombstone
of a Civil War soldier
On a cold November Sunday morning, our Shape Note group gathers to perform a scene for Black Canaries, a film by director Jesse Kreitzer about a coal mining family in Iowa in 1903.
The scene takes place in Mars Hill Church, seven miles southeast of Ottumwa, Iowa, the largest log building in Iowa and the oldest log church still in use in the United States. The coal mining families are gathered for Sunday morning service, during which we sing in four-part harmony from The Sacred Harp, a book of shape note songs. The notes for these early American songs are written with four shapes -- triangular, oval, square and diamond -- which correspond to four syllables -- fa, sol, la, mi. The shapes and syllables are related to pitch. This style was developed to aid in learning the music. Traditionally, the first time through the song, the singers sing the sounds associated with the shapes for their part, then they sing the verses.
The song we sing for this two-minute scene is The Last Words of Copernicus, a hymn based on Revelations 22:5: "They need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light."
Ye golden lamps of heav'n farewell
With all your feeble light;
Farewell, thou ever-changing moon,
Pale empress of the night.
And thou refulgent orb of day,
In brighter flames array'd,
My soul which springs beyond they sphere,
No more demands thy aid.
Jesse chose this song because the words are about no longer needing the light of the sun and moon as the soul departs to a higher realm. The miners spend all day below ground, so they never see the sun except on Sunday morning at church. And being exposed to coal dust for years takes its toll. The grandfather in this film is dying of black lung disease.
In a labor of love, one of the singers makes paper covers for our modern Sacred Harp books, complete with individually applied soot to look authentic. However, as it turns out, Jesse wants us to sing from memory so we won't have our noses in our books. Easy to memorize one short rhymed verse, but shape notes? We end up faking them with random fa, so, la. But it sounds authentic.
Mars Hill Church was built between 1850 and 1856. In 1974 it was entered in the Iowa State Register of Historic Places. Nowadays, it's only open for services once a year in June. When we arrive in October for a rehearsal, the floor is covered with dead Asian beetles and a few lethargic wasps. No heat.
The church was originally built because of a death. In 1846 the Clark family came to Iowa by covered wagon with their eight children and bought land on a forested ridge high above the Des Moines River. Unfortunately, they lost their youngest child shortly after they arrived. But there was no cemetery, so Barbara Clark granted a piece of their property to the Baptists for a church and cemetery.
In 1862, 35 members of the congregation formed the 7th Iowa Cavalry and left to serve in the Civil War. All of the graves of veterans from many wars, down to the present, are marked by small round metal plaques.
Iowa joined the Union as a free state in 1846, just 15 years before the Civil War, whereas Missouri, just across the border to the south, came in as a slave state in 1821. Like all the border states, there were both pro-Union and pro-Confederate people in Missouri. Because Mars Hill Church is located not far from the border, there is a local tradition that the church served as a station on the Underground Railway. Escaped slaves from Missouri hid out in the forest nearby during the day, then gathered in the church at night to be transported further north. Perhaps someone dressed like this helped to spirit the slaves away to freedom.
At one time vandals broke many of the oldest headstones in the cemetery, dating back to the 1850s. Some have been left where they fell, but some have been repaired.
In 2006 an arsonist set fire to the building. But church members raised funds to rebuild the church in 2008, using some of the remaining charred logs in the reconstruction. You can see some of the blackened logs at the top of the wall with new grey logs at the bottom.
Since Mars was the Roman god of war, you may wonder, as I did, why the church was named Mars Hill. The elderly man who opened the church for us for rehearsal explained that Mars Hill is another name for a site in Athens, the Areopagus (Hill of Ares, the Greek name for the god of war), where criminal trials were conducted and where the Apostle Paul gave a speech about "the Unkown God." So the tradition of giving speeches on Mars Hill continues, as Jesse speaks in front of the podium about John's role as the oldest miner.
On the morning of the filming, we arise at 6 and drive an hour from Fairfield, arriving at the church at 7:30 to get into costumes. We've cobbled together what we have or can find at used clothes stores and the costume lady from Iowa City has a trunk full of long skirts, shirtwaists, ragged shawls, pants, patched jackets and boots in various sizes. She also creates "the look" of rural early 20th century for the ladies with short hair.
His son continues in the family tradition of mining.
As do his two sons, aged 10 and 6.
The mother takes care of her men as best she can.
Yates is the leader of a secret circle of miners.
The film director and the rest of the crew have a flat tire on the way down from Iowa City, but they finally arrive with the van full of equipment and props, including a cast iron stove, stove pipes and a coal scuttle with coal.
Lots of film equipment in cases, and a boy with a smartphone.
A sound wave analyzer.
We move the organ and most of the benches outside to make room for the actors, props and equipment. The old organ still works, but it's missing some notes.
The biggest prop is the coal stove. It's cold, but unfortunately no real coal fire, only a red plastic insert, so between takes we bundle up.
Another crucial prop is black soot to give the look of coal dust on the miners.
Liberally applied to the face, hands and hair of the miners.
Between takes, lights are moved, the camera positioned and the film reel changed.
The film comes in 1,000 foot reels that cost $70 for 10 minutes of filming. In the digital age, not many people still know how to load film. But Jesse wants the look of the old 35 mm black and white film.
The camera man, who hails from Chicago, checks out the camera angle.
While the sound man, who hails from Fairfield, listens to the recording.
Some of the tools of the trade are low tech, like cords and duct tape.
Non-conducting wooden clothespins.
Reflectors to direct sunlight inside.
During breaks the actors take advantage of the split log benches for a bit of sun and snacks.
While others tour the cemetery, reading the inscriptions.
And some just can't stop singing.
For the whole-group shots, the camera moves in on a track laid on the floor.
Photographers everywhere, including a man from the Ottumwa Courier and several of the singers taking candid shots.
For the side shots of the two main actors, some of the singers stand on apple boxes to be in camera range.
Side shot of the husband, communicating wordlessly across the coal stove with Yates.
At 3 PM, we run out of film, so after 7 1/2 hours we have 2 minutes of good film for the scene. The sound man, still holding up his microphone like a banner, reflects the fatigue all of us are feeling. But we also feel that it's been a job well done.