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,
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
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