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. 78 r.p.m. records have given way to LPs, followed by eight-track tapes, cassettes, and CDs. The Blind Boys’ audience – once rigidly segregated and confined to traditional Gospel venues – now reflects the group’s 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 didn’t exist when the Blind Boys started out. Even so, the Blind Boys’ 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 Carter’s venerable stature does not preclude an adventurous openness to musical experimentation. Hence The Blind Boys’ decision to record “Down In New Orleans,” accompanied by some of the Crescent City’s 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. “This particular flavor is new for us,” Carter comments. “We’ve never recorded in New Orleans, never been backed up by any New Orleans bands. We’ve 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 can’t get up on a ladder and hammer nails, but me and the guys can sing inspirational songs that will help lift people’s hearts while they hammer nails.
“New Orleans musicians have a different feel to their rhythm,” Carter continues. “They 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 wasn’t hard. First of all, those New Orleans guys were so nice – they’re good musicians, good people, clean people. We enjoyed working with them. And they didn’t just try to do it all, they listened to our ideas, too. We put our heads together with them, and with our producer Chris Gold-smith and our manager Charles Driebe. The communication was good. And we did alright with it.”
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 on “Down In New Orleans,” for instance, rearranges the old spiritual “Free At Last” as slinky second-line funk. ‘Free At Last’ goes way back,’ Carter comments, “but, to me, the most important thing about it is those were the words that Dr. Martin Luther King used at the end of his ‘I have a dream’ speech: ‘free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last!’ ” The Blind Boys’ New Orleans sojourn also features a song by one of the city’s premier writers and cosmic commentators, the late Earl King. King’s “Make A Better World” is secular rather than sacred, per se, but its point could not be more Christ-like. “We like the message on that one,” Carter affirms. “We do need to make a better world.
“You 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 Devil’s music. No, indeed! I love the blues. I am a big fan of Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, B. B. King.
“From 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 didn’t perform with them, way back in the day, because Gospel was separate. But we perform with them today.” 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. “Now, one famous New Orleans artist who we did perform with,” Carter goes on, “was Mahalia Jackson – one of the greatest Gospel singers ever! She was a nice lady, although some people couldn’t get used to how she wanted things done to perfection. We do two Mahalia Jackson songs on this album: “If I Can Help Somebody” and “How I Got Over.”
“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 Toussaint’s 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 LeBlanc’s banjo chords and Bennie Pete’s tuba propelling Billy Bower’s lead vocal. “Across The Bridge” honors the legacy of one of Jimmy Carter’s idols – “Jim 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 didn’t perform together.” Many Gospel songs are equally prominent in black and white, African-American and Anglo-American tradition alike – including “I’ll 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 more modern, street-parade bands such as The Hot 8..
At the core of The Blind Boys’ sound is four-part harmony that makes dramatic use of contrasting vocal leads – as heard here on "I 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 "the Alabama style." It was at Alabama’s Talladega Institute for the Blind that the five blind boys first came together, initially calling their group The Happyland Singers. “The Happyland name lasted until 1948,” Carter explains. “Then 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 ‘the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.’ Both us groups liked that idea and we changed our names behind it.”
The rechristened Alabamians barnstormed the African-American Gospel circuit for decades. “Of course,” Carter continues, “we have performed in New Orleans many, many times, going way back. In the ‘50s there was a promoter named Reverend Herman Brown, he’d put big shows together with lots of groups and he would call it “an extravaganza” – there’d be us, the Soul Stirrers, the Pilgrim Travelers, and the Blind Boys of Mississippi.” Then In the early 1980s, the Blind Boys of Alabama performed in the Obie Award-winning musical "The Gospel at Colonus", in which a classic Greek tragedy by Sophocles was presented in a contemporary Pentecostal motif. “That play really took us to another level,” Carter says, “and ever since we been playing all over the world. I never thought we’d still be doing it, all these years later. Yes, we thought we’d 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 haven’t got tired of singing yet.”
“What would I tell young people who might think about singing Gospel music?,” Carter concludes. “Well... I’d tell ‘em that The Blind Boys had to come up through certain degrees. Sometimes it was rough. And if you’re going to go into Gospel you’re going to have to do the same thing. To stay in this field, it takes dedication, you have to be dedicated, because there’s 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.” ********
-- Ben Sandmel
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based journalist,folklorist and musician. The producer of The Hackberry Ramblers’ 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.