The Blind Boys of Alabama Rock Around the Manger
by Charles Donelan
Before funk, before rock, and even before rhythm and blues, there was gospel. Gospel revues packed into automobiles crisscrossed America throughout the 1940s and ’50s playing venues big and small, spreading the word about God with sweat-drenched, soul-shattering harmonies and rough-edged, powerful vocal solos. The Blind Boys of Alabama, who today include founding members Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter along with Bishop Billy Bowers, Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie, Bobby Butler, and Tracy Pierce, are one of the original such gospel groups, having begun their careers an astonishing 67 years ago at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939. Clarence Fountain was acknowledged by chart-topping soul singer Sam Cooke as a primary influence in the area of making an emotional appeal to the audience; and Fountain, unlike Cooke, is still out there bringing down the house today.
When Lee Breuer chose the group to portray Oedipus in his groundbreaking musical theater piece Oedipus at Colonus in 1983, he brought the Blind Boys of Alabama to a whole new audience. Since then, high-profile collaborations with contemporary musical artists such as Ben Harper, Shelby Lynne, Chrissie Hynde, Tom Waits, Aaron Neville, and Mavis Staples have kept the Boys in the limelight. They will be playing their second-to-last Christmas show before Christmas here in Santa Barbara at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on Thursday, December 21. Go Tell It on the Mountain: The Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas Show is also available as a CD and an extended live DVD. For information on these and other Blind Boys releases, visit blindboys.com.
I spoke last week with Blind Boys of Alabama drummer Rickie McKinnie, who was at his home in Atlanta for a few days before the tour recommenced with a Friday night gig in Mobile, Alabama.
How does it feel to be off the road for a couple of days? It’s always good for me to be at home, but it will also be good to go back to Alabama on Friday with the Blind Boys. The reception in Mobile is just so beautiful it would break your heart. The people who come out, some of them have known the Boys since childhood, and it feels very special.
What do we need to know about the upcoming Blind Boys show? You can tell the people in Santa Barbara they are going to hear the best damn gospel music they ever heard in their lives — anywhere.
Is there anything different they should expect from a Blind Boys Christmas concert? What they should know about the Christmas show is that it is going to take them back to childhood. They will feel something when we sing the more familiar songs like “Silent Night” that they maybe haven’t felt since they were little kids. No matter what age they are, this Christmas show will make them feel like children again, alive to the real joy and spirit of Christmas. That’s what it’s for, and that’s what it does.
Tell me about Clarence Fountain, the founding member of the group. Clarence Fountain is an innovator. He is constantly anticipating the future. That’s why I say that “he’s not blind, he just can’t see.” And Clarence is very well-grounded on the practical side. What he does makes business sense. It’s this combination of innovation and common sense that makes Clarence Fountain such a pleasure to work with.
How important is faith to you? Faith is where it all begins and ends for us. We think that “if you believe, you can receive.” Faith truly moves mountains, and we know this because it has been true for us; it has actually happened in our lives. Faith is not just how we got here, or how we keep going, because faith is also why we have lasted so long. It’s what’s kept us together, and as long as we have it, we can never truly be apart.