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World Music Features

Blind Boys of Alabama

By Bill Dahl
Published January 30, 2006

No matter where they choose to disseminate their joyous message, the Blind Boys of Alabama (now in their seventh decade!) conjure up the Holy Spirit with a force that’s irresistible even to non-believers.

After more than half a century of tirelessly navigating the endless gospel highway and playing a huge role in pioneering the “hard gospel” quartet movement of the 1940s and ’50s, it would be entirely understandable if Clarence Fountain and his Blind Boys of Alabama chose to coast on their majestic laurels.

          Instead, they’re in the midst of a career renaissance that began in 1984, when their co-starring role in the Obie Award-winning Broadway musical The Gospel At Colonus introduced the Blind Boys to a new audience. The group’s Grammy-winning 2001 album Spirit Of The Century for Peter Gabriel’s global music-oriented Real World Records found them unfurling their melismatically enriched pipes over inspirational songs by the most unexpected of composers: Tom Waits, Ben Harper and the Rolling Stones. Their stellar musical support incorporated tinges of Delta blues, thanks to guitarist John Hammond and harpist Charlie Musselwhite, and world music, courtesy of fret wizard David Lindley (who broke out his oud for the occasion).

          That’s not to say that Fountain and fellow 70-something founders Jimmy Carter and George Scott didn’t harbor reservations about tackling such non-traditional material. “We decided whether we were gonna sing ’em or not, and we didn’t see anything wrong with it, so we just went on and sung it,” said Fountain from his Baton Rouge home. “We sit around and discuss it, talk about it, and go down through the words of it, and pick it out. If we don’t like something in it that’s not appropriate, we just rewrite a line and put it in there.”

Certain lyrical aspects of Waits’ “Jesus Gonna Be Here ” proved especially vexing. “Where in the world you gonna get a blanket from the moon?” Fountain chuckled. “But I liked the song, because it told the truth: Jesus gonna be here. He’s gonna be here soon.”

          Further blurring idiomatic boundaries, producer John Chelew convinced the group to layer the timeless spiritual “Amazing Grace” over the chord changes to the back alley blues “House Of The Rising Sun.” “We just experimented on that. We didn’t know how it was gonna come out,” said Fountain. “But it came out good, so that’s good for us.”

          For the Blind Boys’ new Real World album, Higher Ground, Chelew recruited young “sacred steel” guitarist Robert Randolph and his Family Band to provide a considerably different but no less rootsy backdrop. “The steel guitar always makes a better sound than just an ordinary guitar,” said Fountain. Harper’s on hand again as a guitarist, and the song selections are even more eclectic. The Blind Boys recast Parliament/Funkadelic’s “You And Your Folks,” Prince’s “The Cross” and Stevie Wonder’s churning title track in their own uplifting fashion, alongs