The Blind Boys of Alabama

19 Aug

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The 5 Blind Boys of Alabama came into being when the Great Depression was ending in the late 1930s, at the Talladega, Alabama School for the Negro Blind. Clarence Fountain was only 7 years old at the time that he formed the group and became its spokesperson, as they journeyed from the 20th to the 21st century. In the beginning they were called the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, in the tradition of the Jubilee groups that formed after the Civil War, like the Fisk Jubilee Singers. During the racially segregated 1940s and 1950s, during the golden age of gospel music they played to black audiences only.

After the advent of rock & roll in the 1950s, gospel singers like Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, and Lou Rawls became pop stars, but Clarence Fountain chose to continue singing about Jesus, and the Blind Boys of Alabama continued performing gospel until the present day, under the leadership of original memberΒ Jimmy Carter. Over the decades their popularity ebbed and waned, along with managerial problems, racial discrimination, and periodic successes. The 1980s saw them starring in a Broadway musical called the Gospel of Colonus, and then at the turn of the millennium, secular rock star Peter Gabriel produced their album β€œSpirit of the Century.” They ended up winning all kinds of Grammy awards over the next few years and were touring to packed-out white audiences. Their shows are an energetic blend of rock gospel and performance theater that clearly demonstrates to the world that Jesus can rock.

One time after a concert in Portland, Oregon, I interviewed Clarence Fountain for the Wittenburg Door, that I was a contributing editor and staff photographer for. Later I even published the interview in Blueswax, the online version of Blues Revue that I was also a contributing editor and staff photographer for.Β  One of the questions that I asked him was how the blues evolved from gospel music. His answer was purely theological. β€œThat’s a problem, but I think I can narrow it down, because the Gospel was first. Gospel was in Heaven and the Devil was the chief agent in the choir before God kicked him out. Then he came on the earth and later on down the line he gave us slavery times, and then guys started talking about their babies, and how they love them and all that. I think that’s how it came about, but Gospel was the first choice, and Blues was next, and then Jazz and the rest of the music came in behind it.”

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