The black community in Alabama has a deep, long tradition of spiritual music. Combining native Carib, African, and hymnal traditions, what originated in those sweltering, backbreaking fields remains some of the most haunting songs of hope and faith. Beginning as field songs to pass the time or work in unison, or simple ways to pass along biblical parables, those a capella call-and-responses and field hollers speak to something inextinguishable within the human spirit.
One group that has tried to keep that tradition alive, combining traditional black gospel harmony with the sorrowful touches of those old field hollers and slave songs, is the Birmingham Sunlights — a vocal ensemble so influential they are cultural ambassadors of the United States and have been archived by the Library of Congress as one of America’s cultural touchstones:
The dynamic Birmingham Sunlights are dedicated to carrying on the art of unaccompanied gospel harmony singing that has an especially brilliant heritage in their home place of Jefferson County, Ala. Formed in 1979 by music director James Alex Taylor, the quartet originally included James’ brothers Steve and Barry, and Ricky Speights and Wayne Williams; Williams has since been replaced by Bill Graves. Upon becoming aware of the rich Jefferson County gospel quartet tradition, they sought training from a senior quartet, the Sterling Jubilees, to learn songs traditional to the area. For more than 20 years since then, the Sunlights have carried their joyful message all over the United States and the world. They have appeared at numerous festivals across the nation, performed in France as ambassadors of Alabama traditional culture, toured five countries in Africa and performed extensively in the Caribbean and Australia under the auspices of the United States Department of Information and the United States State Department.
All race and religion aside, there is a very powerful, palpable piece of Alabama history being preserved by the Sunlights. And, while slavery is obviously nothing to be proud of, it is damned hard to not be proud of the indomitable spirit and faith that emanated from many of its casualties.
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