"This slim, oblong book contains as much community effort, as much eccentricity, and as much rich material as any of the shape‑note hymn compilations it is designed to resemble. It has a layered and recursive form, in which various streams separate and converge: a biography, a personal memoir of the folk revival, a critical survey of scholarly literature on African American Sacred Harp singing, a generous selection of evocative photographs spanning the twentieth century, and a CD that ranks among the most valuable and carefully compiled collections of historical Sacred Harp recordings ever assembled. John Bealle's introduction plays the role of the traditional "rudiments of music" section of a shape‑note hymnal, providing a concise and sensitive history of Sacred Harp singing, its diverse adherents, and its intersections with the folk revival. Joe Dan Boyd's prologue prepares the reader to engage the main body of the book (which dates from 1969) as a document of "the eager, innocent spirit by which so many people engaged traditional culture at that time" (p. 24). Boyd's self‑awareness pervades the book and makes it a more complex work than most other celebratory folklore biographies.
In many respects, judge Jackson (1883‑1958) was much like other leading figures in the southern communities that sang from The Sacred Harp in the early twentieth century. He was born poor and rural, did agricultural work all his life, gained a patchwork music education from a variety of singing‑school teachers and friends, taught his own large family to sing, became a prosperous and charismatic cultural leader in his own community, and eventually compiled a shape-note tunebook that included some of his own compositions. This sort of life history is not uncommon in Sacred Harp circles and has long supported the master narrative of American self‑reliance, native ingenuity, and folk artisanship that has informed the reception of this kind of singing almost since the invention of shape-note notation.
But Judge Jackson's story is of special interest because he was African American‑the "black giant of white spirituals," as Boyd subtitled the folklore master's thesis on which this book is based. (With this title, Boyd made a wry commentary on George Pullen Jackson's unfortunate and persistent terminology for shape‑note singing, made famous by his book White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1933],) Judge Jackson's own awareness of the race‑based claims and assumptions bound up with Sacred Harp history is evident from the title he chose for his hymn compilation: The Colored Sacred Harp. Jackson first had the book printed in 1934, funding it primarily with his own savings. The effort probably made him enemies, given that Alabama was deep in the Depression and those unsympathetic to his cause might have smelled a vanity project. Indeed, such enemies could also point to the fact that the book never quite achieved the level of recognition and general use that its compiler hoped. Among the greatest contributions made by Boyd's narrative is his detailed exploration of this anticlimax: why wasn't The Colored Sacred Harp more widely adopted? Boyd moves from the book's physical attributes to contextual social factors, confirming ethnomusicologist Doris Dyen's observation that the very existence of the book served a symbolic purpose apart from its function as a collection of music to be sung.
Boyd's fieldwork in Alabama began after Jackson's death, so he never met his "black giant." The story of his long relationship with Jackson's Wiregrass community is as important a document as his biography of Jackson. An "epilogue" that runs to half the length of the original thesis describes how the Wiregrass singers came to be recognized as national treasures, through performances alongside white Sacred Harp singers at the 1970 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife and the 1971 Montreal "Man and his World" exposition. Boyd's frank discussion of the tensions that arose between the black and white singers over competition for the crowd's attention, differences in style, and repertory choices, among other things‑is far more historically valuable than the typical romantic, celebratory accounts of such festivals. But this account also shows that the singers themselves shared the ideals of those celebrations of conflict‑free diversity and actively worked to find a basis for mutual respect. Boyd's work is a testament to the success of that effort."