Alabama Folkways Articles

April, 1996


by Henry Willett

On the third Sunday in April, for over sixty years, the friends and family of Mr. Judge Jackson have gathered at Union Grove Missionary Baptist Church in southeast Alabama's Dale County to honor Jackson with a day of singing and feasting. They bring fried chicken and biscuits and covered dishes. And they bring their songbooks The B.F. White Sacred Harp and The Colored Sacred Harp , the latter authored and published by Jackson in 1934. By late morning they have "formed the square" and began to sing fa-sol-la.

Sacred Harp singing takes its name from the songbook, first published in Hamilton, Georgia in 1844. For a century and a half Sacred Harp devotes have gathered at churches all over Alabama participating in all-day singings where they sit in a square according to voice part (the basses facing the trebles and the tenors facing the altos) and sing through the notes (fa-sol-la) to each song before singing the lyrics.

Where Sacred Harp singing is typically associated with white culture in the Deep South, southeast Alabama has enjoyed a vibrant, if rare, African-American Sacred Harp tradition for well over a century. The Henry County, Alabama Sacred Harp Singing Convention celebrated its one hundredth anniversary in 1980.

Born in 1883 near Bryhill, Alabama Colored Sacred Harp publisher Judge Jackson first heard Sacred Harp singing while a teenager in Montgomery County, and was composing tunes of his own by his twenty-first birthday. In the 1920s, Jackson had several of his compositions printed on broadsheet flyers which he gave and sold to friends and acquaintances throughout Dale County.

Jackson submitted several of his original compositions to the committee charged with the 1927 revision of The Sacred Harp When the all-white committee rejected Jackson's compositions, he was motivated to begin planning the publication of The Colored Sacred Harp. In the Depression year of 1934 Jackson, himself, was compelled to provide the financial backing for the publication. The Colored Sacred Harp is an important historical document illustrating the musical life of a unique musical community. Its appearance in 1934 was at the height of African-American shape-note singing activity in southeast Alabama. Judge Jackson's son Japheth remembers that one thousand copies of The Colored Sacred Harp were printed. "A firm in Chicago did the printing. I went with my dad in a mule-driven wagon to pick up the books at the Ozark train station." All but one of the book's seventy-seven songs were composed by local African-Americans living in southeast Alabama in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ironically, in the 1990s, with a steadily aging and decreasing number of active African-American Sacred Harp singers, The Colored Sacred Harp is enjoying a new vitality, and the singers have attached great historical significance to the song book. As the singing tradition has begun to wane, attracting fewer and fewer active participants, The Colored Sacred Harp has become a symbol of pride among members of Alabama's African-American shape-note singing community.