THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA
DOWN IN NEW ORLEANS
Since 1939, the Blind Boys of Alabama have sung a fervent blend of traditional and contemporary gospel music. Much has changed during these seven prolific decades. Stylistic phases have waxed and waned; personnel has come and gone. Seventy-eight rpm records have given way to LPs, followed by eight-track tapes, cassettes and CDs. The Blind Boys¹ audience‹once rigidly segregated and confined to traditional gospel venues‹now reflects the group¹s eclectic, global following, while their repertoire has expanded to embrace secular songs with a strongly spiritual message. Such wide acceptance is also evidenced by four Grammy awards, an honor that didn¹t exist when the Blind Boys started out. Even so, the Blind Boys¹ lengthy saga remains a steadfast testament to constancy. Singer Jimmy Carter, who was there when the group was first formed, leads the band today with the firm conviction, joyous commitment, and gravitas that befit an elder statesman.
But Carter¹s venerable stature does not preclude an adventurous openness to musical experimentation. Hence the Blind Boys¹ decision to record Down in New Orleans, accompanied by some of the Crescent City¹s most distinguished R&B and jazz musicians: Allen Toussaint, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Hot 8 Brass Band, and the tight threesome of pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Shannon Powell. ³This particular flavor is new for us,² Carter comments. ³We¹ve never recorded in New Orleans, never been backed up by any New Orleans bands. We¹ve had it in our minds to work there for awhile, and we decided to do it now to support New Orleans while they rebuild after the hurricane. I can¹t get up on a ladder and hammer nails, but me and the guys can sing inspirational songs that will help lift people¹s hearts while they hammer nails.
³New Orleans musicians have a different feel to their rhythm,² Carter continues. ³They play with what you call syncopation, a push and pull. I have heard jazz before, what people used to call Dixieland music, and I like it‹but I never had to sing to it before. We had to make some adjustments to get used to that beat. But it wasn¹t hard. First of all, those New Orleans guys were so nice‹they¹re good musicians, good people, clean people. We enjoyed working with them. And they didn¹t just try to do it all, they listened to our ideas, too. We put our heads together with them, and with our producer Chris Goldsmith and our manager Charles Driebe. The communication was good. And we did alright with it.² They did alright with it indeed. The result is a fusion of style and nuance that links many disparate aspects‹both chronological and geographical‹of American musical tradition. The opening track, for instance, rearranges the old spiritual Free at Last as slinky second-line funk. ³Free at Last goes way back,² Carter comments, ³but, to me, the most important thing about it is those were the words that Dr. Martin Luther King used at the end of his ŒI have a dream¹ speech: ŒFree at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I¹m free at last!¹² The Blind Boys¹ New Orleans sojourn also features a song by one of the city¹s premier writers and cosmic commentators, the late Earl King. King¹s Make a Better World is secular rather than sacred, per se, but its point could not be more Christ-like. ³We like the message on that one,² Carter affirms. ³We do need to make a better world.
³You see, some people think that gospel singers should only sing gospel songs. But we believe in songs with a positive message. Now, we will never cross over into pop music and start singing love songs; people have asked us to do that many a time and we have always turned them down. We were there in the studio when Sam Cooke crossed over to pop music from the Soul Stirrers, years ago. But, I am not one of those gospel singers who thinks blues and rhythm & blues is the Devil¹s music. No, indeed! I love the blues. I am a big fan of Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin¹ Hopkins, B. B.
³From way back, we always knew who those blues and R&B artists were and we admired them all, including the ones from New Orleans like Fats Domino. We didn¹t perform with them, way back in the day, because gospel was separate.
But we perform with them today.² In recent years the Blind Boys have also performed and recorded with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Randy Travis, Peter Gabriel, Solomon Burke, Lou Reed and Ben Harper. ³Now, one famous New Orleans artist who we did perform with,² Carter goes on, ³was Mahalia Jackson‹one of the greatest gospel singers ever! She was a nice lady, although some people couldn¹t get used to how she wanted things done to perfection. We do two Mahalia Jackson songs on this album: If I Could Help Somebody and How I Got Over.²
If I Could Help Somebody‹with its hurricane-healing message of moral support through music‹features the exquisitely soulful piano work of Allen Toussaint. Justly renowned as a Renaissance man of R&B‹as a songwriter, arranger, producer, pianist and singer‹Toussaint has always played with a gospel feel. And, like Earl King, many of Toussaint¹s own songs convey a distinct moral message.
You Got to Move finds the Blind Boys accompanied by members of both the Preservation Hall and Hot 8 bands, with Carl LeBlanc¹s banjo chords and Bennie Pete¹s tuba propelling Billy Bowers¹s lead vocal. Across the Bridge honors the legacy of one of Jimmy Carter¹s idols: ³Jim Reeves, from Carthage, Texas, the greatest country singer of all time! I love country music! I wish I could have met Jim Reeves. He died in 1964, and back in that time, black and white artists didn¹t perform together.² Many gospel songs are equally prominent in black and white, African-American and Anglo-American traditions alike‹including I¹ll Fly Away and Uncloudy Day on this album. And, in New Orleans, both these songs are favorites in the jazz funeral repertoire, as played by the traditionalists of the Preservation Hall group and by the more modern street-parade bands such as the Hot 8.
At the core of the Blind Boys¹ sound is four-part harmony that makes dramatic use of contrasting vocal leads, as heard here on I¹ve Got a Home. Immensely popular in religious circles, thanks to seminal groups such as the Golden Gate Quartet, this style was later adapted as a key component in secular rhythm & blues. Birmingham evolved as a center for this four-part gospel harmony sound, leading some experts to dub it ³the Alabama style.² It was at Alabama¹s Talladega Institute for the Blind that the five blind boys first came together, initially calling their group the Happyland Singers.³The Happyland name lasted until 1948,² Carter explains. ³Then a promoter in New Jersey booked us on a show along with another blind group called the Jackson Harmonies. He decided to hype it up, and he billed it as a contest between Œthe Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.¹ Both us groups liked that idea and we changed our names behind it.²
The rechristened Alabamians barnstormed the African-American gospel circuit for decades. ³Of course,² Carter continues, ³we have performed in New Orleans many, many times, going way back. In the ¹50s there was a promoter named Reverend Herman Brown, he¹d put big shows together with lots of groups and he would call it Œan extravaganza¹‹there¹d be us, the Soul Stirrers, the Pilgrim Travelers, and the Blind Boys of Mississippi.² Then, in the early ¹80s, the Blind Boys of Alabama performed in the Obie Awardwinning musical The Gospel at Colonus, in which a classic Greek tragedy by Sophocles was presented with a contemporary Pentecostal motif. ³That play really took us to another level,² Carter says, ³and ever since, we been playing all over the world. I never thought we¹d still be doing it, all these years later.Yes, we thought we¹d do good, but we never had the notion that it would be this good for so long‹and thank God for that. I still love it, I haven¹t got tired of singing yet.
³What would I tell young people who might think about singing gospel music?² Carter concludes. ³WellŠI¹d tell ¹em that the Blind Boys had to come up through certain degrees. Sometimes it was rough. And if you¹re going to go into gospel you¹re going to have to do the same thing. To stay in this field it takes dedication, you have to be dedicated, because there¹s a lot of wear. And I thank God that the team I got now is dedicated. We want the people of New Orleans to be dedicated, too. And, like that Mahalia Jackson song says, if we could help somebody in New Orleans help them by singing a song, help them by recording this album‹then we will feel blessed.²
– Ben Sandmel
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleansbased journalist, folklorist and musician. The producer of the Hackberry Ramblers¹ Grammy-nominated Deep Water and the author of Zydeco!, Sandmel is currently writing a book about the New Orleans R&B singer Ernie K-Doe.