Elijah WaldJohn Jackson profile

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By Elijah Wald © 1994 (originally published in Sing Out!)

John Jackson sits back in his chair, talking in a slow, sweet Virginia drawl.

"How I started out playing was a convict got me. He was a water boy on a chain gang and he was toting water from our spring. I met him at the spring and he wanted to know what everybody did around there. I told him, we dance, we pitch horse-shoes, and my father worked on the farm and played the guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukelele, made these penny whistles. He said, 'If you'll bring your daddy's guitar down here, I'll play you a song.'

"So I used to get the guitar out of the house and meet him at the spring. He'd play me a tune, get his water and serve the prisoners, little while he'd be back, play me another tune. It went on like that for about six months and they took the chain off his leg and made a trustee out of him. Then every evening at six o'clock he would come over to the house and play us songs and sing. Mom would fix dinner for him and he'd stay till about quarter of nine and us little 'uns'd walk him back to the camp. Then another six months they set him free and so he stayed with us a couple of days and he got up that morning, said he had to go away for a couple of days, but I'll be back. So we followed him to the nearest little town and helped him with his bags and he caught the mail truck and we never did see him no more.

"We never did know his real name, never did know where he was from. All we ever knew his name was Happy. And he was the happiest man you ever saw in your life. He was whistling or singing or laughing or something all the time, like he never had to worry about nothing. He was a fantastic guitarist. He played very much like Lonnie Johnson, in open tunings and just regular tuning, and he did finger picking, he played some slide. And everybody ever heard him said they never heard anything like it.

"There was one fellow that was in the neighborhood from Mississippi and he was a blues guitarist that was no man could beat him playing no guitar. His name was Tom Terrell and he played around there and he was good. And my father said 'Tom,' says 'If Happy come here and get hold of that guitar, you ain't gonna want to play it no more.'

"Tom Terrell said 'If Happy comes back here, I'm gonna put him underneath that road he's building.'"

Jackson is laughing so hard that he has to wipe tears from his eyes.

"So one Sunday morning they all got together and got up underneath the big locust tree. Tom Terrell played, Roosevelt Carter, Snookum Turner, Charlie Beck, there was a whole bunch of people sitting around playing, and my father said 'Happy, pick that guitar up there and show Tom Terrell how to play it.'

"Well, Happy commenced to picking that guitar; and Tom Terrell got so mad he cried like a baby and when he handed him the guitar back, he took it and busted it up over the rock right there and he never did play it no more round there. He really did. If some of the older heads was still alive that was there at that time, they'd tell you just like I'm telling you."

Jackson pauses to have a drink of water. He is sitting in a motel room in Corning, New York, where he will be playing at a small outdoor blues festival. He is relaxed and hospitable, and seems at home in these surroundings, but his voice and dress recall another time and place. The wide-brimmed hat and suspenders, and the gentle, molasses flow of his words come out of Rappahannock County, Virginia, where he grew up in the 1920s and '30s.

Jackson is one of the last great old-time guitar pickers and singers whose work fuses all the musics of the rural south. As much a country singer as a bluesman, he cheerfully plays anything from ragtime to hoedowns and remains proudly free of musical prejudices. "I don't play soul or disco or rap music or nothing like that," he says. "But I don't have anything against it; it just didn't come along when I did. I can play rock music, but I don't get into that because you can't hardly play it with one instrument. But I'm able to play a Hank Williams song, or Jimmy Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Vernon Dalhart, or Elvis Presley, or anybody else if anybody asks for it."

In Rappahannock County, as in much of the not-so-deep South, African-Americans listened and danced to much the same music as their European-American neighbors, sometimes at the same dances. The main instruments were fiddle, banjo, guitar, and accordion, and the songs were from what could be quite accurately called the Afro-Celtic tradition, numbers like "Old Joe Clark," "Boil Them Cabbage Down," and "Get Along Home, Cindy." It was back porch and square dance music, played by neighbors for one another's pleasure and amusement.

"Everybody did it for their own enjoyment, and to celebrate on the weekend," Jackson remembers. "People would dance, and somebody would bake a ham, a pot of beans, or some pies, have plenty to drink and plenty to eat and have music the whole weekend when the weather was good. Now and then someone would pay you a quarter or fifty cents or something, but very seldom you got any money for it. You didn't have anything but a guitar or maybe a banjo, and somebody else would come in with a fiddle or maybe another guitar and would get up in the corner and play right with you.

"You started to play one thing, and if it didn't suit them to dance you'd stop it and start on another one and, if that suited them, that's what they wanted. You sat right there and played that one song all night. When you got tired of playing it, two more people'd move in the corner and go to playing it, and the next bunch would go on the floor and dance. When he would play for maybe a half hour, 45 minutes, two more would get there and another group would come on the floor. Sometimes they'd want another song, but it would be something in that same category."

Jackson's whole family was musical. "My mother played harmonica and accordion," he says. "I can't remember but one song that she played that wasn't a spiritual, and that was 'Put My Little Shoes Away.' My Uncle John played the accordion, and all he'd sing was spirituals, and my dad's sister, Aunt Etta, she played the guitar. Some of the women played guitars just the same as the men. My sister Alice played, and pretty much all my brothers played, fingerpicking style. And my Uncle Charlie, he played the fiddle, he used to play, 'Walk Down, Ladies, Your Cake's All Gone' and something about the Devil's Stairs."

The main musician around the Jackson household was John's father, Suttie Jackson. "He played guitar upside-down, left-handed," Jackson says. "And he picked with four fingers and a thumb, he's the onliest man I ever saw do that. He even picked ukelele like that. He played stuff like 'Comin' 'Round the Mountain, Charming Betsy' and 'The Preacher and the Great Grizzly Bear,' 'Floyd Collins,' 'Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,' and a song went 'It's Gonna Be Rain or Snow when the Cockadoodle Crow.'

"He had a little small guitar with a picture of a cowboy on it with a rope in his hand whirled up, and they said the name of it was a Round-Up. And he had a six-string banjo and a five string banjo, and a four-string ukelele, and a eight-string mandolin. Only thing I would pick up on was the guitar now and then, and the minute he hit that house he knowed if you touched that guitar. He used to fuss, say I always would be running it out of tune. After I learned to play, he didn't mind; I could used it all I want. But my sister already done bought me one then. The first guitar I got, my sister give it to me and she paid 3 dollars and 75 cents for it. She ordered it from Sears and Roebuck, and it was a Harmony."

Jackson could learn little from his father, because of the latter's unorthodox technique. Anyway, he was of a younger generation and interested in the new blues sounds coming into the area. Happy served as an inspiration, and the source of some open tunings, but most of his education came after the family acquired a phonograph.

"It was two furniture dealers came up in the country with horse and wagon," he remembers. "They came into the house one day and had a load of furniture on their wagon and these old record players you wind up by hand. And they come in there, said 'We got some furniture and we got a music box we want to sell.'

"My father told them, said, 'We ain't got no money to buy nothing with.'

"So they left and went back up on the hill and got into some trees and eat their lunch, and when he went back in the hay field to work, they came back down to the house with a record playing on the thing.

"My mother heard it, said 'God-a-mighty, Mr. Hume, what is that?'

"He said 'This is that music box your husband run me away with.'

"She said 'Bring that thing on in here.' So they brought it in and they left two or three records with it. And they come around once a month, every six weeks, and collect whatever we was able to pay them on it. And they would bring a whole lot of records--any kind of record you wanted, they had it. My older sisters was taking in washing and ironing and day work, and they would buy the records. I remember Blind Blake, Lemon Jefferson, Barbecue Bob. Just everybody who ever made a record back then. Frank Stokes, Gus Cannon and the Jug Band. He would come around and my sisters would buy two or three records, and that's how I learned to play, listening to those records.

"I would put a record on the record player and if I couldn't get the guitar in the same tune as the record, I'd trim me a stick, like a pencil, and I'd cut me a rubber band out of an old inner tube that our next-door neighbor had, that had old T-model cars, and I'd wrap it over the stick and slide it down the neck and put it over the other end and would get it the same sound as the record and play right behind the record."

Jackson still plays many of the songs he learned off those records, Blind Blake's "West Coast Blues" and its flip side, "Early Morning Blues," Frank Stoke's "Nobody's Business" and "Take Me Back", or Blind Boy Fuller's "Rattlesnakin' Daddy." The guitar parts have changed somewhat with the years, but he still stays close to the recorded versions, in some cases covering the original breaks note for note. Clearly, he was not approaching this music as a professional musician, but rather as a dedicated amateur. He played to enrich his free hours and amuse his friends and family, and had no urge to become a full-time street corner player like his models. Indeed, when asked if he ever wanted to go on the road, traveling around like the men on the records, he just shakes his head.

"I never thought of it that way, never thought to do any hoboing or nothing like that. Just traveled to friends and neighbors 'round the neighborhood. Sometimes I'd walk like thirty miles on the weekend with a guitar, maybe play for a party or a dance and get back in time to go to work on Monday morning. We didn't have no automobiles. It wasn't hardly any money then, and which if we had money I don't know what you'd've done with it. Wasn't no place to spend it.

"Back in the late '20s and early '30s, I didn't get but a quarter a day; I was about 18 years old 'fore I made a dollar a day. Which I got as much pay as anybody else did, and that's what they was paying. Six days a week, that would've been a dollar and a half a week, and that wasn't bad money. We lived good, we had plenty to eat. 'Cause you could take a quarter to the store and a dozen eggs, and you'd bring home a whole great long sack full of groceries and still have a little change left 'round."

Jackson is openly nostalgic for those days. He remembers gathering walnuts, shucking them, and selling them to the local store for a cent and a half a pound, and foraging for food in the woods and fields. "There's so much good stuff out there to eat, and you wouldn't never find how good it was 'less you know it," he says, reeling off a list of wild fruits and vegetables. Even instruments could be home-made. His father's pennywhistles, for instance, did not cost even their namesake penny.

"He'd take a sappling that wasn't quite as big as your little finger and he would cut it to about six or eight inches long," Jackson says. "Then he'd take a big piece of fencing wire and take a hammer and beat it real rounded on the end and he'd put it in the cook stove and heat it till it get blood red hot. He kept jabbing it in there until he'd burn a hole all the way through it and make it real smooth. Then he'd cut the notches on top of it with his knife and cut a little mouthpiece for it and he'd go around playing."

In this rural environment people played whatever instruments and music came to hand. By Jackson's day the banjo, though originally an African import, had fallen out of favor among younger African Americans in most parts of the country, and would receive its death blow in the '30s with the arrival of the electric guitar. To the people in Jackson's neighborhood, however, it was still a fine, loud instrument that could keep the people's feet tapping at a dance. Jackson says he learned his banjo style pretty on his own, but there were plenty of other players around.

"My father'd fool around with the banjo, but he couldn't play it like some of them fellows," he says. "My aunt married a thoroughbred indian named Jim Clark, and I tell you he could make a banjo sound like a train on the track. He was the first man I ever seen pick a banjo with three fingers and a thumb. He was a much lighter-skinned man than I was, raw-boned, and he wore one big plait of hair and he kept it curled up and wore his hat on it. You'd never know he had it until he come in from work and he'd take it down and comb it and plait it back up and put it back up.

"But I didn't learn nothing from him. How I picked up the banjo was my brother was playing at a dance with the guitar and he got in a fight and he hit somebody with it and broke it up, throwed the rest of it in the river. So we didn't have a guitar for about two years and I used to go to my aunt's and help to work the garden and all and I picked up Uncle Jim's banjo and just kept fooling with it. What little bit I do on the banjo I learned it by fooling with it, by not having the guitar. And I don't know today whether I play a banjo or not."

The fight that lost him his first guitar was typical of the problems Jackson encountered at the dances, and in his early twenties he finally decided that he'd had enough. "In '46, I reckon it was," he says. "About September or October, there was a big house party, and I went to do some of the playing for the dance. It was near down in a little place they call Slate Mills, Virginia, and there must have been 200 people there. I went on in with my guitar and got up in the corner and was playing, and it was about 16 people on the dance floor, square dancing. This fellow come in and set right down in the corner near me there. I knew him, but I didn't know him very well, and I didn't pay no mind to him. So when I happened to look around at him, the biggest drops of water you ever saw was running out of his eyes. He was crying. And all at once he spoke up and told me, says 'You either play that box or put it down.'

"I said 'Noakes,' said 'I play some, you play some, and everybody else, and we're all here to have a good time.'

"He had a pair of these old striped cover-alls on and a great big pair of work shoes with iron on his toe, with them big nails on the bottom. And he raised his feet up and stomped against the floor and sparks flew up from neath his feet, and he told me, said 'God damn you, I told you to either play that box or put it down.' And he leaped up outta the chair to get me and three or four other fellows was there was my friends that knew me, they grabbed him and got him quieted down and got into a tussle with him.

"They took him out and about ten minutes he came back and set down again. And he set there and I looked around at him, he was crying again, and he told me, he said 'You stole my guitar and I'm gonna have to kill you.' He had some kind of old switch blade knife in his hand and he called me a real nasty name and he jumped up to stab me with the knife and these other boys grabbed him again. And that's what started the fight.

"Man, you never saw such a fight in all the days of your life. They tore the man's furniture up, they knocked the windows out of the house. I hadn't long been married then and I grabbed my wife by one hand, had the guitar in the other one. We started out the back door and were going down the back steps, somebody cut loose with a jammin (gallon?) jug and it came right over our heads and hit a locust tree in front of us, busted all to pieces.

"We kept running, trying to make it till the car and by the time I got almost to the bottom of the steps I heard another terrible crash and I looked, somebody hit this man over the head with part of a table leg. And he come down them steps rolling, but we jumped off the steps out of the way and he hit the ground, he got on his feet and I bet you a rabbit couldn't have caught him, he was running so fast. 'Bout that time we got to the car and I got that started and I got out of there. And I told my wife that night and I said to myself, 'If I get out of here alive, I'll never play no more.' And that's what stopped me from playing. I quit playing in '46, and I never touched a guitar no more till '64."

Even without the fight, the music that Jackson liked to play was falling out of fashion. By the mid-1940s, country blues and hoedowns were being replaced by the big city jump blues sound of bands like the Count Basie Orchestra and Louis Jordan's Tympany Five. Juke boxes brought recorded dance music to even the most rural areas and, by listening to the radio, dancers could keep up with the latest trends. Where their parents had danced to old-time hoedowns, Jackson's contemporaries began to do the drag, the slow, sexy dance of the city.

Roads had improved as well, and bands could come out to play one night stands in the rural juke joints. "This was about '46, just after the war quit and everybody was coming home," Jackson says. "It was a little place they called the Pine Knot Inn, about five miles out of Little Washington, a beer joint. They had a ball diamond, and Radio Dick used to come up there in a great big Greyhound bus and bring a ball team they called the Brown Bombers. They would play like a little town called Madison and the next time they would play a place they call Fredericksburg, and after the ball game they would have a dance.

"Radio Dick had about a five piece band, with horns and a guitar and drums, and I can remember one song that they used to do that they danced a lot to was 'Diggin' My Potatoes' and 'Get Out the Can, Here Come the Garbage Man.' Man, you never saw such dancing like they was doing. It wasn't no square dance. He'd have the woman swinging, and she would cross his legs and he would roll her over his hips, and she'd come around the side like you ain't never saw in your life. They called it the drag."

While Jackson enjoys the memory of Radio Dick, the ball games, and the dances, he remembers it as the end of his own musical era. "After this Pine Knot Inn business got started, of course, some of the older heads died out, and the others had gotten too old," he says. "They didn't go out nowhere, and people just quit having square dances, and there wasn't no command for my kind of music."

Even at the best of times, music had only been a sideline for Jackson. He says that quitting playing was hard, as hard as quitting cigarettes, but he had plenty to keep him busy. Even today, at 70, he keeps his day job as a grave digger, and in his prime he kept a schedule that would have killed anyone else. "I had a full-time job as a caretaker and a chauffeur," he says. "And in the evenings when I got off from work I would go dig a grave if I had one to dig. If I didn't, I would mow grass until dark, or I'd take my truck and haul trash, and then I would go wash dishes at the men's club and then go up clean up the office until one or two o'clock. I used to work almost 24 hours around the clock."

Meanwhile he and his wife raised seven children, and it was through the children that he finally began to play again in 1964. "It was three or four kids was at the house, playing in the yard with my kids," he says. "They got tired of playing ball and they wanted to do this dance that Elvis Presley started. So the kids asked me to get the guitar out so they could do a hula dance, and I got it out and was trying to play 'Walk Right In, Let Your Sweet Mind Roll On.' The mailman delivered some mail to the house and heard me doing it and he wouldn't leave me alone. Said he'd been trying to play the song and couldn't play it, and wanted to know would I learn him how to play it." ("Walk Right In," a 1929 record by Cannon's Jug Stompers, had recently been a hit for the Rooftop Singers, an early folk revival group.)

"I told him, 'I ain't picked or played the fool with no guitar since '46.'

"He said, 'That sounds good to me.' Said 'I got a part time job pumping gas up at this Amoco station; you bring your guitar and we can get in the back room when I ain't got no gas to pump and you can learn me to play it.'

"Well, he just kept on at me, so I got the guitar at night and went up there. We was in the back room and I was trying to learn him to play it, and this man drove in for gas. And instead of him getting his gas, he come running in the back of the station--I don't know how he seen us in there--and wanted to know what I was playing.

"I told him, said 'I ain't playing nothing.'

"He said, 'You must play something, you got a guitar.'

"So he kept on asking, and I played him Mississippi John Hurt's 'Candyman.' He asked me what else I played, and I told him 'Nothing.' And he kept asking, and I played him a Blind Boy Fuller song. And then he wanted to know where I lived and I told him 'Just two blocks down to that little house there.'

"When I come in from work, he was sitting on my porch. I played him a whole bunch of stuff, and before he left, he asked me how I'd like to go in town and meet the man wrote 'Candyman.'

"I said 'That man ain't living now, he's pushing up tulips.'

"Said, 'Oh, no he isn't. He's Mississippi John Hurt and he's playing in Georgetown at the Ontario Place.' So he said, 'You be ready, I'm going to come over here Friday night, I'm going to take you over to meet him.'

"So when, sure enough, Friday night come, he come by. I wasn't ready, and he said, 'Look,' says 'I ain't fooling. Mississippi John Hurt's in town.'

"So I got ready and went over there and I seen this little man sitting there, but I still didn't believe it was him. But the minute he played 'Candyman,' I knowed he was the man. So I got to meet Mississippi John Hurt that night, 'Lizabeth Cotton, Skip James, and then after the concert they had a party, so I went over there and we celebrated till about two or three o'clock in the morning.

"Next weekend, it was another bluesman came in named Mance Lipscomb, so they took me over to meet Mance Lipscomb and Son House. They asked me would I play two songs on the stage and I did and this man jumped up out of the audience and said 'I want to make a record by that man.' It was the Arhoolie record company, and he came out the next day at 11 o'clock; he started me playing and I played till 11 that night, and played ninety songs. And in 1965, April to May, the record came out and I've been traveling ever since."

Jackson recorded three albums for Arhoolie, then two for Rounder. (The only thing currently available is Arhoolie CD 378- "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," which contains songs drawn from the three LPs, and two Rounder cassettes, Deep in the Bottom C-2032and Step it Up and Go C-2019.) He has toured all over the world and become one of the most popular of country blues performers, with an ebulliant stage style that includes jokes and tall tales along with his wide range of musical material. Unlike many older blues performers, who often seemed uncomfortable and out of their element performing at festivals or clubs packed with white, urban, middle-class audiences, Jackson takes it all in his stride. He cheerfully chats with fans, his conversation laced with dry country wit. When, in Corning, a young woman asks him why he has two guitars on stage, he replies "Usually I play one with my hands and one with my feet, but today I forgot to bring my strap." Jackson's face shows no sign that he is joking, and his questioner nods as if this explanation made perfect sense.

At home, he still occasionally plays with his brother in Rappahannock, who plays the autoharp, and with his children. "I have one son, James, that used to play with me on stage sometimes," he says. "But if he has to go somewhere that he has to stay over night, he don't like to go. He plays everything: rap music, rock, whatever you name it. I had the other one that played, he passed away, he got that poison in Vietnam, it was Agent Orange and then the doctor said it was cancer, but that's what happened. And My daughter used to play the piano, but she don't fool with that any more. I got one son that blows a real nice harmonica, and my other son he's gotten into spirituals. You can start him off on a blues and I guarantee you 'fore you end it he'll be playing 'Just a Closer Walk With Thee' or 'Circle Be Unbroken' or something. And the next one, he picks just like I do, but he don't like to play for anybody, just plays for his own 'muse. I got six grandkids and I got one little grand-daughter has been with me ever since she was three days old and she's been trying to work on the piano and guitar, but she got wrapped up in going to school and she sort of put the guitar down and the piano too."

None of his children show any inclination to carry on Jackson's performing, but he says that doesn't bother him. As far as he can see, the tradition is still very much alive. "It's so many good young blues players, black and white," he says. "They can play as good as me or anybody else, and there's nothing wrong with them doing it." After all, if there is one thing he has learned in his travels, it is that his old-time blues and hoe-downs can cross all ethnic and cultural barriers. "When I go to Europe, or maybe to south America, I can't speak the language, but the minute I touch that guitar everybody understands it," he says. "I don't have to do any more than that right there. I think music criss-crosses. It don't buy no air fare, but it gets there."

(Note: As John Jackson is only now beginning to read and write, all proper names that couldn't be checked have been spelled as they sound.)

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"A traditional Southern gospel group, any one that I've ever heard, generates a kind of energy that you just don't get anywhere else. Like once we were in Ohio and we were performing on a program with several other groups, magnificent groups. They sang a cappella, but they didn't sing the traditional stuff, and one guy says to us, he says, 'You know, I know we sound good, but there's just something about you guys. There's a certain excitement that seems to follow you wherever you go.' And that excitement is the emotion and the power and strength that's put into Southern gospel."

The speaker is James Alex Taylor, leader of the Birmingham Sunlights. The Sunlights consist of Taylor on lead tenor, his brothers Steve and Barry on baritone and bass, Wayne Williams on second tenor, and Reginald "Ricky" Speights on baritone. They are five men with a mission: to bring the glorious sound of old-time quartet gospel to a modern audience. Today they are in Boston, doing radio promotion for a "Juke Joints and Jubilee" tour sponsored by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, which features them along with the Holmes Brothers, blues singer John Dee Holeman, and Fontella Bass.

The New England climate is taking its toll, keeping several group members battling colds and sore throats, and the non-stop touring schedule has everyone feeling exhausted and a bit out of sorts. As soon as they have finished the radio spot, the singers sprawl on couches and chairs, trying to catch a little sleep before driving to their next concert date in Lowell. Taylor is clearly tired as well, but seems only too happy to talk about the music he loves.

In the last decade, the Sunlights have become roving ambassadors for the classic quartet sound. Along with tours for the Arts Council they have appeared in concerts and festivals all over the United States, and in 1989 made a State Department-sponsored tour of Southern Africa, visiting Malawi, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland. Their debut CD, For Old Time's Sake on Flying Fish Records, received well-deserved critical raves and was profiled on Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Wherever they go, the Sunlights bring a combination of consummate artistry and a deep love of the roots and history of black gospel song.

"We've been singing a cappella all our lives," Taylor explains. "Many of our songs are songs we grew up with. Like 'The Southland Singing' [on the Flying Fish album], I remember hearing that before I even started school. It was the Golden Gate Quartet, and one of the radio programs would open up with it every morning. It's heart-moving music, you know? There's music that makes you pat your feet, music that makes you clap your hands, and then there's music that makes your heart move. The power of that old Southern gospel makes your heart move, which controls everything else--your feet, your hands, your lips, everything."

Taylor grew up singing in the choir of the Powderley Church of Christ in his native Birmingham, and received further training at Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama. After winning a state-wide talent contest in 1970, he moved out into the secular world, leading a band that toured with soul greats like Isaac Hayes, Al Green, and Stevie Wonder. He released one single, "Don't Look at Me that Way" on Bang Records, before becoming disillusioned with the pop music business in the late '70s.

Asked what brought him back to gospel, Taylor says he never really left. "Even when I was singing rhythm and blues, on Sunday you could catch me in church singing gospel. 'Walk Around Heaven' was my favorite. Everybody used to love to hear me sing that. So for a while I chased that one record, playing different club dates with my band, and we did pretty good. But after no other record was released I got a contract release from Bang and I went into gospel. At first I was with another group, then I broke off with that group and formed the Sunlights in 1978."

Though they always sang a cappella, the Sunlights did not start off concentrating on a traditional sound. "We got into that by accident," he remembers. "My mother asked me, said 'James, I want you to do this song that my great uncle used to do.' We couldn't find that song, nobody that knew it all the way through. It went 'I do not know if he will welcome me there,' but that's all we knew. So I told her to choose another and she said 'It's Gonna Rain.'

"Now, I'd heard 'It's Gonna Rain' since I was a kid, so we went to one of the older groups, the Sterling Jubilees, in Birmingham, and asked them to teach us that song. It turned out it was one of the very first songs that they learned as an a cappella gospel group, over 68 years ago. So they taught it to us and everybody loved it. After we saw that song was so popular, we just started to do more of them and we ended up singing traditional Southern gospel."

Of course, the choice was not simply based on the public response. Taylor says that when they started concentrating on a traditional sound, they found that it was like coming home. "That music gives me a feeling that no other music does," Taylor says. "The sound is so rich. The harmonies are rich, the feeling is rich. And its something that everyone in the group likes and that we were brought up with."

Indeed, the Taylors were carrying on a family tradition. Their father, Everett Taylor, sang with Birmingham's Four Blue Eagles in the 1930s and '40s, and when his sons decided to follow the traditional road they found mentors all around them. Local veterans like the Shelby County Big Four, the Fairfield Four, and the Four Eagles were all willing and eager to teach them the traditional styles. Taylor says that, far from being surprised, the older singers found the Sunlights' return to their roots a normal and logical step. "Those guys, some of them have been knowing us since the day we were born" he says. "So when they found out that we were singing traditional Southern gospel, they were just like 'Well, we knew it was just a matter of time.' That kind of attitude. And they were always happy to help us along."

With the encouragement and aid of the older singers and Taylor's own research in the field, the Sunlights have developed a repertoire that ranges across the whole field of traditional quartet singing. "Some of the arrangements we do are over a hundred years old," Taylor says. "We do old arrangements, we have originals that we have written in the traditional style, and we do some of the later stuff like the Soul Stirrers. We get the arrangements from different places, different groups, then we'll add here, subtract there, and come up with a specific style."

Taylor does most of the arrangements himself, with input from the rest of the group. "Everybody has their different ideas, and sometimes we use them," he says. "Sometimes we don't, and sometimes I have to change my ideas because they don't fit. Basically we try to handle everything democratically, but I am the musical director and if it don't work I'll change it."

However the arrangements develop, Taylor says that they always hew close to the original melody. "We don't ever want to change the melody, 'cause that's the life's blood of the song," he explains. "Everything else is built around that and once you've got that taken care of everything else is relatively easy. Most of the time, all I have to do is sing the melody and the other guys pick up their parts instantly. After fourteen years, you know, you learn a little bit." After they have that basic arrangement, Taylor says, it's just a matter of doing a little fine tuning. "Like we may want to change an ending, or add an eighth note or a sixteenth note at a specific part in the song, to give it a different flavor at that point. But it's not like I have to write the parts out. Everything is done from the ear, the heart and the soul."

On stage, the Sunlights use all three to perfection. Their love for the music comes through in every note and the harmonies are impeccable, the group forming a swinging, perfectly cohesive unit. Taylor and Wayne Williams handle the majority of the leads, Taylor as the group's sweet singer and Williams as the hard shouter, with the other members filling in the cracks. However, everyone gets his turn. Ricky Speights jumps from baritone to a pure, lovely falsetto and even the generally self-effacing Steve Taylor takes his moment in the spotlight. Barry Taylor, introduced as "Poppa Pump," is usually needed down at the bottom, keeping the bass line popping, but one of the high points of their show is when he steps to the center mike to sing a booming lead on "Roll, Jordan."

According to Taylor, the Sunlights decided from the beginning that they wanted to be as democratic as possible, with no members relegated to a purely back-up role. "When we formed the group, we didn't want a lead singer per se," he says. "We said if you didn't want to be a song leader in the group, then you were in the wrong group. If a man's got a song that he wants to lead, we encourage him, and most of the time everybody brings his own songs. Or I'll hear a song and I'll say 'Steve could really do this.' Or Barry. And we'll do it that way.

"Then sometimes we switch around. Like I gave up 'Gospel Train,' a song I was leading, to Wayne. I said 'I think you might do this a little bit better, it sounds more like your stuff. So I'd like you to lead it, if you'll be so kind.' He said 'Yeh, I'll give it a try,' and he led it and it sounded good. I took the lead tenor, and it humalacked."

Seeing that his last word has baffled the interviewer, Taylor is happy to explain. "It was humalackin'. Humalackin' is a term used by the older guys. When you're really singing and the singing is pleasing to your heart and pleasing to the hearts of everyone else, then you're humalackin'. It makes your feet move, your body move, your heart pump, and your hands clap. On this tour, I've been teaching that word to a lot of people."

The teaching is important to Taylor. In concert, he often takes time to explain the roots and relationships of the songs. "It's Gonna Rain," the song which closes each show, is his educational masterpiece, a spectacular fusion of classic gospel and modern rap that points up the links between the oldest African-American traditions and the hottest street sounds. "I heard a rap singer on television say 'If the martians came to earth today, they'd want to hear rap, because they'd want to hear something new,'" Taylor says, shaking his head. "I said to myself, 'If that brother only knew.' Because rap isn't new, it's older than anything else.

"'It's Gonna Rain' is an old rap song, well over 180 years old," he continues. "Rap is one of the very first forms of gospel quartet singing, and it's just taken on a different form today. Most of the rappers now are from the North, and they use what is called perfect diction or the king's English, but the guys from the old days they were from down South--they used the traditional diction what was popular back then, what some people call black English. So what I do is I sing the first verse in the old traditional rap, then I do the second verse in the new 1990s rap. That makes the connection quite well. Because we need to educate the people and that's one of the tools we can use. And we find that most people are very receptive when we give them information about the different styles of music."

Taylor says the Sunlights found some of their most receptive audiences when they were in Africa. What is more, he clearly feels that on that tour the group learned as much as they taught. "The first thing when we got off the plane in Malawi, our first stop, was they opened their arms and said 'My brothers, welcome to the land of your forefathers,'" he says, smiling at the memory. "They took us around and showed us different places, different people, and different musics, and once I got in there I began to see exactly why our music sounds the way that it does.

"It was like finding out who you really were. Because I've been taught Negro spiritual songs all my life, as long as I can remember, and when I got to Southern Africa I discovered that their traditional songs are just like our spirituals, just a different language or a different religion, but the style was the same. So when you start tracing the roots of Southern gospel, you have to take it back to Negro spirituals, and from there all the way back to Africa. Cause that's actually where it started.

"When we got there and began to see exactly why our music sounds the way it does, I had to tell them, 'What you're about to hear is your music, transformed over a period of four hundred years.' And they were very receptive every place we went. It was very interesting. Every country was so different and so unique and so beautiful. And at the concerts, sometimes guys would come up and want to sing, and we'd step down the aisle and sing together. It was just amazing."

At their New England shows, the audiences are enthusiastic but more restrained. Taylor says the relatively subdued reaction is quite common when the Sunlights are singing for largely white, non-gospel audiences, and he has learned to take it in stride. "Sometimes you get to places where they enjoy you tremendously, but they're tensed up a little bit, they're a bit conservative," he says. "When that happens, we just have to work a little harder. And for the most part, we can involve them and get them to do their share. In a couple of places on this tour, we've had standing ovations before we even finished our set."

Now, the tour is winding down and the Sunlights are looking forward to getting off the road, back to their families and businesses. And back to singing where they started out, in the churches around Birmingham. "You don't have too many groups doing this music anymore, so we stay relatively busy," Taylor says. "There are a lot of older members of the church and these are songs they can identify with. But you know, the young people like it too, because there is a feeling that is generated in this kind of music that you can't find anywhere else, a feeling that old people and young people can understand."

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