Telling It on the Mountain
The Blind Boys of Alabama
The Blind Boys of Alabama are no strangers to Christmas music. The gospel stalwarts, who have a sevendecade history, have just rereleased their 2003 Grammy award-winner Go Tell It on the Mountain, a decidedly December-appropriate collection featuring guests Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Tom Waits, and Meshell Ndegeocello, among others, as well as new bonus tracks. The 2014 release Talkin’ Christmas! included voice and instrumentals from Taj Mahal. The group does an annual holiday tour, and this year’s edition stops at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, Dec. 20.
Jimmy Carter, the group’s last active original member, said he first started harmonizing at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega in 1939 at the age of nine. He told Pasatiempo in a phone call from his home in Birmingham that Christmas at the institute was a time for singing. “Music was a big part of Christmas at the school. Some of that was secular, I know, holiday music, but there was a lot of traditional carols, church music. Even then, we were pledged to gospel. We went the gospel way.” A family’s fortunes decided where a pupil ended up for the holiday. “Some of the students went home for Christmas and came back after the New Year. Back then, the parents had to buy the students’ tickets to get them home, d a lot of them couldn’t afford it. So a good many ended up staying there. I was fortunate. I got to go home every Christmas.” What he recalls of his earliest holidays is a collective memory of childhood. “I was like all the kids. I believed in Santa Claus, and I knew that he would come on Christmas Eve with presents.” Carter said that when the group visits Santa Fe, “for the first time, I believe, with this program, we’ll be doing a mix of traditional Christmas and gospel tunes to show the people what we’re about.”
In recent decades, The Blind Boys have performed in a variety of styles and teamed with musicians of all sorts, from Merle Haggard to Prince. But even the funkiest rhythm-and-blues material they’ve covered seldom strays far out the church door (Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” for example). And they always honor the pledge the founding members made many years before. “To be a gospel group,” said Carter, “and bring the message. The message is that Jesus died that we might live. We tell about Jesus, how He is bringing us to the light.” The Blind Boys appeared with Lou Reed on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2010 to perform the old Velvet Underground tune “Jesus” (“Help me in my weakness/ ’Cause I’m falling out of grace”). Carter, who admits to not “particularly” liking all the contemporary music that they’ve done over the years, says the tune’s title and message said it all. “It’s all about the feeling. When you know God, you’re going to have that feeling. Doesn’t matter what type of song it is, as long as it’s got that feeling. When we go out there, we’re feeling it. When we sing, we’re trying to make you feel what we feel.”
The Blind Boys, first known as the Happyland Jubilee Singers, began doing local appearances and radio broadcasts in the early 1940s. When World War II broke out, they entertained nearby troops in training. They hit the road in 1944, and when they did, Carter wasn’t among them. “My mother wouldn’t let me go,” he said. “I guess she thought I was too young.” A promoter began staging concerts with the Happyland group and a blind vocal group from Mississippi. He billed it as “Battle of the Blind Boys.” Carter was not yet touring with the group, but he saw one of the shows. “That’s where the name Blind Boys got started,” Carter explained. “It really was a battle. Each group would do two songs, then the other group would do two
songs, and it would go like that until the
program was over. The winner was whoever got the spirit moving, who would get the spirits high and get people shouting. It was a great time.”
The Blind Boys recorded for a few small race labels that favored gospel and the emerging R&B sound in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Carter recalled how they once shared space in a recording studio where the Soul Stirrers, a gospel group that included a smooth tenor vocalist named Sam Cooke, were also cutting an album. A record executive came in and offered Cooke a deal if he’d do more popular, secular music. He offered The Blind Boys a similar deal. “Sam decided to take it,” Carter said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But we had made a pledge that we would stick with gospel no matter what. Sure, we had setbacks along the way. But we’ve been determined to stick with it. So we turned them down.”
Sales of soul music easily eclipsed gospel during the 1960s and ’70s. In the late 1950s, The Blind Boys had recorded for respected R&B labels Vee-Jay and Savoy. By the 1970s they were hanging on with albums released by HOB (House of Beauty), a popular gospel label that also recorded Rev. James Cleveland. Clarence Fountain, one of the founding members, dropped out to pursue a solo career but returned in the late ’70s to perform with original members. The group gained cross-cultural, national prominence when its five members were cast as Oedipus in the Lee Breuer-Bob Telson musical The Gospel at Colonus, which in 1985 was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The group won its first of five Grammys, not counting their 2009 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2002 for
Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. (The Blind Boys opened for Gabriel on his 2003 “Growing Up” tour.) Collaboration continues to be important — notably on their 2009 recording Duets, which, in addition to Ben Harper and Solomon Burke, includes Reed doing “Jesus” — and Take the High Road, a 2011 country-gospel album that featured performances from Willie Nelson and Vince Gill, among others. The group recently earned 2016 Grammy nominations for their recording God Don’t Ever Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson in the Best Roots Gospel Album and Best American Roots Performance categories.
One of Carter’s prouder moments was performing at the White House in front of President Barack Obama and his family in 2010. Carter remembers touring the American South during the long era of Jim Crow laws. “We sometimes had a hard time finding a place that would let us in to eat,” he said. The group appeared at rallies for Dr. Martin Luther King in the early ’60s. “I never met the man,” Carter said of Dr. King, “but we were there for him. We’ve been fortunate to go to the White House three times, to see President Clinton, President Bush, and now President Obama. All three of them were very nice to us. But there with Obama — you realize how far we have come in all this. Of course, we still have a little bit to go.” And here he lets out a chuckle. “We’re just glad that we’ve had a chance to do our bit.”
The eight-piece ensemble appearing in Santa Fe includes longtime vocalist members Eric McKinnie, Ben Moore, and Paul Beasley. (Founding member Clarence Fountain won’t be touring due to health issues.) Carter said there’s currently no thought of retirement. “What keeps us going is that we are all committed to what we are doing. I think we were called by God to this place, and we have to finish what He set out for us to do. I think He’s going to let us keep going on for a while. When He’s satisfied that he got what He wanted from us, then he’ll call us back.”
It’s all about the feeling. When you know God, you’re going to have that feeling. Doesn’t matter what type of song it is, as long as it’s got that feeling. When we go out there, we’re feeling it. When we sing, we’re trying to make you feel what we feel. — Jimmy Carter