Friday, July 12, 2019


Being neither resident in the state, or even the country, my observations from afar lead me to feel Alabama doesn't get much good press, even in the medium of popular song. Especially in the medium of popular song. And when the only two positives come from Al Jolson and Lynyrd Skynyrd, you know you're in trouble. (Nah, I take that back about Skynyrd, I bloody love that song, but it only exists as an attempt to justify the place from the ire of others. But we all know that. Right?)

Moving swiftly on, there is one Alabama icon that really does make me gleam, that being this astonishingly lasting vocal group from the state. Granted it can not have been an easy start in life, born both blind and black below the Mason-Dixon line in the pre-war years of the great depression. But maybe, just maybe, being at the now anaethemically named Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind gave these boys a start they mightn't have otherwise achieved. For they were boys, just 9 years old as they gave their first concerts, in the school chorus as the Happyland Jubilee Singers. The idea of blind gospel singers seems somewhat of a lame trope these days, a cliche to fill gaps in our knowledge, yet it was actually quite a big deal back then, the Happyland Jubilee Singers getting their big break from a 'Battle of the Blind Boys' music competition. (Beat that, Simon Cowell, although X Factor does increasingly feel it is muscling in on disabilities.) Up against the Jackson Harmoneers, the publicity gave both bands a boost, as they became the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi respectively, touring both together and, sometimes, as each other. The Alabama version got a record contract and a hit, in 1948, and that was the end, all but, of the rival version.

Gospel was big in the 1950, and it was to this genre the boys stayed true. Original founding member Clarence Fountain had this to say about this decision. Of course, as the decades have rolled by, there have been many instances where they have seemed to sing of more secular themes, but never have they sung a lyric where an ambivalence about to whom the song is addressed cannot be drawn. Thus, as the 60s became the 70s, with R'n'B and Soul taking great strides through the white dominance of the day, so the Blind Boys were there, reminding all as to where these musical forms had a common home. (Indeed, how many of the giants in those styles hadn't started off in the church? Aretha and Al were certainly no exceptions.)

It wasn't because any of this I was drawn to the group, almost more despite the religion. I have little truck with it myself, probably since, as a teenager and when asked, ahead of having my appendix out, my father proclaimed me as heathen. (The nurse duly wrote that down.) But I do love a harmony vocal, but, rather the honey smooth, the more raggedy the better, think Lindisfarne and the Jayhawks, so when the Blind Boys starting cropping up on albums I was listening too, my attention was picqued. These were often tribute albums, whereby the great and the good would queue up to pass cover on their peers, such as Richard Thompson. And then came Solomon Burke's majestic comeback in 2002. So, when in 2004 they collaborated with Ben Harper, more so because of their involvement, this was a record I had to have: 'There Will be a Light'. And again, in 2005, with 'Atom Bomb', they having been now tucked under the wing of Peter Gabriel's Real World record label. Astonishingly, a full 50 albums into their career, suddenly they were hot property, filling concert halls both alone and in cahoots with musicians from all walks and at all stages of their careers. True, there have had to be changes along the way; there are none of the original 5 left, let alone performing, newer members snucking in seamlessly over the decades, different voices, different timbres, the overall sound, the overall performance remaining little changed. The current line-up does however still include Jimmy Carter, also a pupil at that Alabama Institute, but too young for their debut in 1939. Whilst a touring member ahead of that time, it was only officially in 1982 that he made his recording presence as a member. Nonetheless, his legacy with the originals is sufficient to consider him as one. Here's his take on it all. (Clarence, mentioned above and in the interview, died last year.)

I can't even begin to give full due acclaim to this wonderful institution, coming so late to their game, having to be born and whatnot, but, scattered both within the piece and below, enjoy some musical heaven.

Finally, and with enormous excitement, I can report I am finally getting to see them live, next month, at the Cambridge Folk Festival, here in the U.K., alongside Amadou and Maryam, blind husband and wife world music titans from Mali, who themselves met similarly, at Mali's Institute for the Young Blind. I cannot wait.

Any of these....