Telling It on the Moun­tain

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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


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