Beginning in the 1920s Jefferson County Alabama became the center of African American gospel quartet music. Large numbers of Blacks came from rural Alabama and neighboring states to work in the steel mills and coal mines in and around Birmingham. The church was a focal point in this newly urbanized community, and quartets singing spirituals were a principal form of entertainment. Jefferson County quartets, often sponsored by organizations like the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and local businesses, developed a distinctive, driving acapella sound more lively than the old-style jubilee singing. All this was happening at a time when the advent of radio and phonograph records allowed local musicians to reach a much wider audience. Jefferson County quartets such as the hugely influential Famous Blue Jays were among the first to put out gospel records and had a growing impact on singers in New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, New York City and throughout the South.

By loosening up the quartet style, the Jefferson County Sound inspired groups like the Soul Stirrers, Swan Silvertones, Pilgrim Traveler and countless others who brought quartet music to Black audiences in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The film revisits this history with vintage performance footage of quartets who were still performing in the 1980s but are now gone; and ends with the NEA Award-winning Birmingham Sunlights, still performing for audiences today.

With the Blind Boys of Alabama, Fairfield Four, Birmingham Sunlights, Sterling Jubilees, Delta-Aires, Four Eagle Gospel Singers, Selvy Singers and the Pattersonaires.

Where to See the Film

The Jefferson County Sound is available on Amazon Prime (VOD and DVD)

Film Trailer

Major Funders

Funded by the Southern Humanities Media Fund, Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Alabama State Council on the Arts, Alabama Folklife Association, South Carolina Humanities Council and Hugh Kaul Foundation.