june 2012

It came from Alabama: Steel plant and workers' houses, Birmingham, May 1939 (Photo: Marion Post Wolcott)

‘Those Songs Gonna Linger in Somebody's Heart Forever’

The Jefferson County Sound: Alabama's Black Gospel Quartets traces the deepest roots of American roots music

Jefferson County, Alabama (which includes Birmingham, the "Pittsburgh of the South"), a true crossroads of steel and song, 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 were housed in segregated company towns and worked for meager wages. With little available recreation, they soon formed singing groups, and Jefferson County established its preeminence in the gospel world as a major center for a cappella gospel quartet singing from the 1920s through the 1950s. Birmingham proper was an especially vibrant scene for community-based quartets in the '20s and '30s. At a time when almost no black quartets in, say, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Nashville, Cleveland, or Cincinnati were recorded, an unusual number of groups from Birmingham caught the notice of major labels that captured their art on disc.

A new one-hour documentary film, The Jefferson County Sound: Alabama's Black Gospel Quartets (One State Films, Stone Ridge, NY, 2012), is a tribute to the glorious history of black gospel a cappella quartet music. Directed and produced by acclaimed filmmaker Robert Clem, a native of Alabama, the documentary stands on the shoulders, figuratively speaking, of the three decades-plus of research and writing about African-American vernacular music, much of it centered on the gospel singing traditions of Jefferson County, by author/scholar Doug Seroff, whose books (written in collaboration with Lynn Abbott) include the essential history, The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895; Clems's film also owes a considerable debt to the 1985 documentary On the Battlefield: Gospel Quartets in Jefferson County, Alabama by Geoffrey Haydon, Penny Corke, and Dennis Marks. It also stands on its own as a moving chronicle of a critical chapter in the story of gospel's golden age.

"Gospel quartets are an overlooked subject, and I thought it could use the attention," says Clem, 65, who heads Waterfront Pictures in Stone Ridge, N.Y. "This is a fascinating subject, and an important part of our culture."

Trailer for The Jefferson County Sound: Alabama's Black Gospel Quartets

Clem, a Methodist preacher's son, grew up in Jefferson County awash in church music. But the county's gospel quartet heritage was revealed to him only when he began doing research for the documentary in 2006.

Originally Clem had planned to focus strictly on the Blind Boys of Alabama, a venerable group that returned to prominence in 2001 with its Spirit of the Century album. The filmmaker broadened his scope when he learned about the Famous Blue Jays, the Sterling Jubilee Singers, the Four Eagles and other seminal gospel groups.

Clem and a small crew spent about five years on The Jefferson County Sound, conducting interviews, collecting archive footage and filming the remaining groups in concert. He sought context from experts such as Opal Louis Nations, an album collector and music historian, and Jerry Zolten, author of a book on the Dixie Hummingbirds.

"If you look at the history, these groups had it tough," Clem says. "They didn't make much money. I like artists who persevere against the odds, and continue to be passionate about it.

"This was just a parallel universe," Clem says. "I never knew it existed. I was proud it came from my state."

Still vibrant: The Birmingham Sunlights, ‘I Come to the Garden Alone,’ gospel a cappella at the 2011 Lowell Folk Festival

For a contemporary perspective, Clem called on leaders of the American Gospel Quartet Convention. This event draws a wealth of gospel troupes to Birmingham each year for a series of performances and workshops. "I wanted to show the spirit of the performers and what it means to them," Clem says.

He covers a great deal of ground in The Jefferson County Sound, including the roots of gospel quartets, key players on the scene, flamboyant "battle concerts" staged by competitive troupes and the music's link to the civil rights movement. Clem traces the evolution of the quartet style, and points to the ascension of larger groups in the 1960s, such as the Mighty Clouds of Joy. "Everybody was trying to outdo each other in those days, and push it to new heights," he says.

Black gospel music, which begat pop-styled group harmony singing (a la the Ink Spots, Ravens and Mills Brothers), ‘50s R&B and doo-wop and ‘60s soul, was a product not only of the church, but of the cotton fields, the coal mines and the steel mills. 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, featured players all in Clem's documentary,

The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, ‘Too Close to Heaven’

The film traces the evolution of black gospel quartets (which does not always mean only four persons) from their early beginnings in the 1920s up to the present time. In the 1950s the cross-generational appeal of Soul Stirrers' lead singer Sam Cooke pointed the way to greater riches in the secular world of R&B--with Cooke leading by example. 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."

Cooke told Isaac Freeman of the Fairfield Four to "Come on over--this is where it's happening," meaning the secular side. Freeman said Cooke then took out his wallet and flashed a wad of bills --enough cash to "choke a goat."

"I'll just stay over here and starve,” Freeman told Cooke, surprising only Cooke, apparently.

"He was very religious and faithful," Clem says of Freeman, "and he's still that way."

‘Listen. You can go to Chicago, you can go to L.A., you ain’t gonna find that type of singin’ what you hear from Alabama. I promise you. And you will know it when you hear it.’: The Four Eagles, an Alabama a cappella gospel quartet with a 69-year history, spread the Word to the congregation

Of those artists who remained in the fold of traditional gospel quartet singing, some--like Auguster Maul of the Delta-Aires-- have been at it for more than sixty years. John Lawrence of the Four Eagles, a group that has been around for 69 years, started in the turbulent Birmingham of the early 1960s. “I was scared to death,” Lawrence says, rightly so, considering the description of Birmingham as “the meanest city in the south outside of Biloxi, Mississippi,” in Theodore White’s account of the 1960 Presidential race, The Making of the President 1960.

The film's archival footage of the early gospel groups and of Birmingham in the 1960s as well as that of the steel mills, coal mines, and cotton fields, reminds the viewer that these musicians were singing not for money, but for their lives. John Lawrence, who spent 31 years in the coal mines, recalls a spark that set off a gas explosion killing 13 of his friends. He escaped the disaster only because the had gone to visit his mother that day.

‘Tell Me When Jesus Was Born,’ The Delta-Aires, a Jefferson County a cappella gospel group with a 60-year history

James Taylor, one of the founding members of the Birmingham Sunlights, said after work friends would gather at someone's home and sing. Mentored for a year by the Sterling Jubilees, the Sunlights, like other quartets, are carrying on an honored tradition in their world. As noted by author Doug Seroff (the leading historian of Birmingham’s black gospel quartet tradition) says: “It was through the inspiration and direction of community-based quartet trainers that a distinctive regional quartet style took form in Jefferson County and was ultimately spread abroad.” Today, this living musical tradition is carried on through local quartets. Many hold annual reunions in the Birmingham area, with some of those "reunions" having occured regularly for more than 60 years.

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.

Jefferson County’s Famous Blue Jay Singers, ‘I Must Tell Jesus,’ a 1947 recording

According to Clem, 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 those names.

When the Blind Boys of Alabama (aka the Happyland Jubliee Singers) hit the road in 1944, it was a hard way to go in the pre-integration south. Families and friends would put them up and feed them until they would move on to another town. Says Clarence Fountain: "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 more than 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 quartets to move in new directions. Featuring four singers gathered around one mike, the "jubilee" style was formal and well-mannered. Nations credits a gospel quartet called The Blue Jays with "loosening up" the quartet mindset.

One bit of archival footage in the film shows Maggie Cheeks (circa 1952) playing the piano for the Sensational Nightingales, the group headed by the towering Reverend Julius Cheeks, an incendiary house wrecker and dynamic showman who was the prototype for rough- and muscular-voiced soul shouters of the 1960s such as Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd. Maggie Cheeks is more Jerry Lee Lewis than the Killer himself, 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").

Jefferson County’s Sterling Jubilees, ‘I Was Praying,’ from the 1984 documentary On the Battlefield: Gospel Quartets in Jefferson County, Alabama by Geoffrey Haydon, Penny Corke, and Dennis Marks

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."

And of course, the clips embedded on this page prove the truth of what the greatest gospel singer of them all, Mahalia Jackson, said about gospel music: "This is the staff of life."

clemAbout Robert Clem: the director and producer of The Jefferson County Sound: Alabama's Black Gospel Quartets 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.

Clem plans to expand his recent documentary to include more groups and to call it How They Got Over. “(The title) refers to how these groups connected with audiences, and how they managed to survive," he told the Birmingham News's Mary Colurso. "I think there's more to it than I was able to put into this film. In the next version, I'm going to try to climb the mountain higher."

The Jefferson County Sound: Alabama's Black Gospel Quartets premiered on Alabama Public Television on February 7. Future showings are undetermined at present.

“American Roots Music: The Jefferson County Sound: Alabama's Black Gospel Quartets" by Penne J. Laubenthal, Swampland.com

“Divine documentary: Alabama gospel quartets are moved by the spirit in 'Jefferson County Sound'” by Mary Colurso. The Birmingham News

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