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American Roots Music: "The Jefferson County Sound: Alabama's Black Gospel Quartets"

The new documentary film, "The Jefferson County Sound: Alabama's Black Gospel Quartets," (One State Films, Stone Ridge, NY, 2012) is a tribute to and an affectionate preservation of roots music, in particular black gospel a capella quartet music. The film is directed and produced by renowned filmmaker Robert Clem, a native of Alabama. "The Jefferson County Sound" documentary is an artistic and historical treasure created by one of this century's most talented documentary film makers.

Tommy Stevenson, a friend of Robert Clem, wrote in the Tuscaloosa News, "The labor of love by my old college classmate and fellow preacher's kid takes its name from a distinctive form of black a cappella gospel music that sprang up around Birmingham, especially in the western suburbs, beginning in the 1940s. It continues, somewhat diminished, today."

Stevenson goes on to say that this "distinctive music, born out of the coal mines and steel mills" has had something of a renaissance in recent years due in large part to James Taylor, the founder of The Birmingham Sunlights, an a cappella group "which has kept the music alive" by performing the old standards. (photo of Birmingham Sunlights)

Jefferson County, Alabama, was a crossroads of steel and song. Birmingham, the "Pittsburgh of the South," is recognized as the birthplace and capital of a cappella gospel singing. This style of music emerged in the early 20th Century when a boom in the coal and steel industries led to a massive migration of African-American workers to Jefferson County. The workers lived in segregated company towns and worked for meager wages. For their own entertainment, they formed singing groups.

Black gospel music was the forerunner of Rhythm and Blues, Doo Wop and Rap. This gospel quartet music which came out of the cotton fields, the steel mills, the coal mines, and of course, the churches, became popular in the early 20th century. The Jefferson County sound was distinctive, and Jefferson County, Alabama, gave rise to numerous black gospel quartets, including the Fairfield Four, Delta-Aires, Blind Boys of Alabama, Four Eagles, and the Birmingham Sunlights. These five quartets are featured in Clem's documentary film,

Clem's film traces the evolution of black gospel quartets (which does not always mean only four persons) from their early beginnings in the 1920's up to the present time. In the 1950's there was much temptation for black gospel quartets to make the move from gospel to R&B. Clarence Fountain of The Blind Boys of Alabama said that in order to make the transition from gospel to R&B "you just have to take out Lord and put in baby."

Sam Cooke who had gotten his start singing gospel music told Isaac Freeman of the Fairfield Four to "Come on over.... This is where it's happening." Freeman said that Cooke then took out his wallet and flashed a wad of bills --enough cash to "choke a goat." Freeman's reply was, "I'll just stay over here and starve." (photo of Fairfield Four)

Of those artists who remained in the fold of traditional gospel quartet singing, some--like Auguster Maul of the Delta-Aires-- have been singing for over sixty years. John Lawrence of the Four Eagles, a group that has been around for 69 years, got his start in the turbulent Birmingham of the early 1960's. Lawrence said he was "scared to death."

The film's archival footage of the early gospel groups and of Birmingham in the 1960's as well as that of the steel mills, coal mines, and cotton fields, reminds the viewer that these musicians were not singing for money, they were singing for their lives. John Lawrence, who spent 31 years in the coal mine, tells of a spark that set off a gas explosion killing thirteen of his friends. He fortunately escaped the disaster because the had gone to visit his mother that day.

James Taylor, one of the founding members of the Birmingham Sunlights, said after work friends would gather at someone's home and sing. The Sunlights had as their mentors for a year the Sterling Jubliees. The Sunlights believe that training new generations of musicians is an important part of the gospel quartet tradition, passing the baton, so to speak.

The Blind Boys of Alabama got their start as the Happyland Jublilee Singers. All of the group were residents of the Negro School for the Deaf and Blind in Talledega, Alabama. When Jimmy Carter's mother is asked on the film to tell something about her son, she says poignantly, "Not much I know about him because he left me when he was seven."
Carter says that the deaf and the blind did not get along with one another and eventually had to be split up. (photo of Jimmy Carter)

Director Robert Clem told me that when a promoter decided to get the Happyland Jublilee Singers and the Jackson Harmoneers together for a quartet battle (a popular event), they were introduced as" the blind boys from Alabama and the blind boys from Mississippi." After that event, both groups decided to adopt these names.

When the Blind Boys of Alabama (aka the Happyland Jubliee Singers) hit the road in 1944, it was a very difficult road indeed. In the pre-integration south. Families and friends would put them up and feed them until they would move on to another town. Clarence Fountain says "If we knew how the road was, we never would have went out there." No one could take three months off work to travel so they always had spare members. As far as perpetuating the groups, when one member of the group passed on, they just replaced him with a younger member. Thus the groups kept going--some for over 60 years.

One of the film's narrators, musician and writer Opal Louis Nations, who helped popularize American soul-based R & B and gospel music in Great Britain, discusses how the later gospel quarters moved away from the "jubilee" form thus freeing up the gospel quartet to move in new directions. The "jubilee" form was very tight. Four guys gathered around one mike. The style was formal and well-mannered. Nations credits a gospel quartet called The Blue Jays with the " loosening up" of the gospel quartet

One bit of archival footage in the film shows Maggie Cheek (circa 1952) playing the piano for the group headed by the Reverend Julius Cheek. Maggie Cheek is more Jerry Lee Lewis than Lewis, standing up and pounding on the piano with wide-spread hands, occasionally using her elbows. Another more recent segment of the film showcases the Blind Boys of Alabama performing a powerful rendition of "Amazing Grace" to the melody of an old English ballad popularly known as "The House of the Rising Sun" (or "Rising Sun Blues").

The evolution of black quartet music is fascinating to observe. In one of the final bits of footage, the Birmingham Sunlights, as recipients of the 2009 NEH Award for Artistic Excellence, perform at the awards ceremony in Maryland. At that concert, James Taylor demonstrates the organic strength and durability of black gospel music by performing "It's Gonna Rain"---first as a kind of rap preaching from the 19th century and then as what he called the "new millenium rap."

The film ends with these words by Isaac Freeman of the Fairfield Four: "Gospel music will never be forgotten. Those songs gonna linger in somebody's heart forever."

Director and producer Robert Clem was graduated from Anniston High School and Birmingham-Southern College and later received an M.F.A. from NYU Graduate Film School. He has been a fellow at the Sundance Institute writer/director's lab and his films include Company K; Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism; Eugene Walter: Last of the Bohemians; Malbis Plantation: From Greece to America; and In the Wake of the Assassins. Clem is currently producing a film which combines a documentary on Mobile author Augusta Evans Wilson and a dramatization of her 1866 novel St. Elmo, the best selling novel of the nineteenth century after Uncle Tom's Cabin. (photo of Robert Clem)

Clem was inspired to make "The Jefferson County Sound" by seeing a 1984 documentary entitled "Say Amen, Somebody." He plans to expand his recent documentary to include more groups and to call it "How They Got Over."

"The Jefferson County Sound" which premiered on Alabama Public Television on Tuesday, February 7, will be shown again on APT on Tuesday, February 14, at 7 pm.

-----Penne J. Laubenthal
Further Exploration on Swampland

      FIlmmaker Robert Clem, Atticus Finch, and Big Jim Folsom

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