Original members of The Blind Boys of Alabama met when they were nine years-old in the children’s chorus at The Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. First known as “The Happyland Jubilee Singers,” they made their professional debut on June 10, 1944. Next year, they dropped out of school and began touring the gospel circuit. (The name was changed in 1948.) Of the original members, founders Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain remain – the latter records, but no longer tours.
Seventy years later, having traversed boundaries of color and disability, The Blind Boys have moved from performing solely at black churches during the Jim Crow era to touring the world, garnering five Grammy Awards plus one for Lifetime Achievement, and performing at The White House. The octogenarians’ deeply felt, uber-energetic, deftly arranged amalgam of gospel meets secular music makes a beeline for the heart, raising spirits wherever it’s heard.
I had never seen the group live before this concert. Members enter single file, hands on shoulders. Each has a chair to which he periodically returns. The show is helmed by founding member Jimmy Carter whose exuberance, were it bottled, could light a town. “We hope we can sing somethin’ that’ll make you feel good tonight.”
“Almost Home” (Randall Bramblett), title song of their most recent CD, opens the program: I’ll always remember that sad day/Thought the world ended when the train pulled away… Carter sings all gravel and grit, left hand keeping time on his thigh. …I went to a school to read and write/It was hard sometimes cause I didn’t have my sight… Many of The Blind Boys secular songs were written for and about them.
Eric “Ricky” McKinnie
“I Can See” by band members Joey Williams and Steve Ray Ladson follows. This song rocks. One member claps, one punches now right now left, one taps a foot, one nods. There’s a howl or two from onstage and some responding “whoo woos” from the audience…sure the road got so hard/I had to totally depend on God…All four sing lead at some point, all sing back-up. Voices are powerful and raw.
John Leventhal joins to perform two songs he authored, “God Knows Everything” (with Marc Cohen) and the highly personal “Let My Mother Live Till I Get Grown” (with Marc Cohen and Jimmy Carter). The first is a gospel march, part sung, intermittently spoken. It’s a deep sigh extended by reverb; an assurance, a celebration. Leventhal’s guitar is sweetly played…He’s always beside me 00, 000…/Every step of the way/God knows whoa whoe/…Everything/That’s what I say/For him I sing/For him I sing/…ending with an undulating high tenor.
The second number expresses Jimmy Carter’s childhood wish not to be abandoned by his mother. (She was 103 years old when she passed.) “The Lord puts nothing on you (he bangs his chest) that you can’t bear.” A solid R & B beat drives here. Bass gets under one’s skin, drums pull, guitar punctuates. Carter stamps.
A country-flavored “Stand By Me” (Charles Tindley) arrives in line-dance tempo provoking all four members to their feet bouncing, bobbing, bending; testifying with sounds. “Uncloudy Day” (J.K. Atwood) also has a western feel albeit with a bit of ragtime influence. One member periodically does a little dance-the kind of thing George Burns used to do where one can imagine vivacious youth but enjoys current insouciant cool…step side to side, hop, hop, slide…
The world is in a bad condition,” Carter comments. We don’t know where we’re headed. No matter how bad things look or seem, remember…One day we’ll live in a world of peace and harmony/Ask me, ask me how I know/God said it, God said it/That’s good enough for me…” Line breaks are mine as they’re undoubtedly unique to each singer. (“God Said It-That’s Good Enough For Me”- Kenneth Gamble/Cecil Womack)
A sorrowful sound introduces “Amazing Grace,” (traditional-arranged by John Chelew) performed in harmony with short phrases. Shades of “House of The Rising Sun.” Keyboard pines. Bass delivers a circular theme. The pithy arrangement is unlike usually melodic renditions. “Somebody out there oughta know somethin’ about amazing grace!” Music quiets. There are moans.
Somewhere in the solar plexus of a joyous, fifteen minute plus tent revival number, Carter gets us up on our feet clapping and dancing in place. Repetition goes on and on, hypnotic as a whirling dervish… Hey, hey, hey, hey/Ha ha ha/Awright, awright…” “Y’all feelin good? This little song is a good song. I don’t know about you but The Blind Boys are here tonight to have a good time!”…”I gotta get up and talk to my musicians. Musicians can I talk to you?” he asks turning his back to us. “I want my bass man to give me a groove…Do you FEEL me?!”, he shouts to the room. Needless to say, the audience responds.
Jimmy Carter Surrounded by Admirers
Later, a similar collective effect rises with the group’s joyous rendition of “Drive” Once again, we’re immersed in sheer thoughtless feeling. “I like to hear you say yeah, yeah, yeah!” Carter is escorted to the edge of the stage where he continues to call out. People from the audience spontaneously go forward to shake his hand or pat is shoulder. A crowd forms. (The music never stops.)
Now they’re running down from the back of the room, wanting to touch, to express gratitude and feel connection. When he rises, people hug. “I feel the heat, I feel the heat!” At the front of the hall, two young girls dance together, then a couple. “Do you feel it?!” A handler tries repeatedly to help Carter back on stage but he slips away again and again walking back and forth on the theater floor like a happy errant child. Finally, he’s retrieved.
The artists exit, but cheering and clapping no one else leaves, they’ll return for an encore. Imagining exhaustion, my companion and I start for the stairs when, unbelievably, they again take the stage. “This is an old Stevie Wonder song we made into a Knoxville song…” It’s “Higher Ground.”
The weight of the world is temporarily lifted.
Photos by Kevin Yatarola.
Opening: Left to Right: Steve Ray Ladson (bass), Paul Beasley, Austin Moore (drums), Jimmy Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Joey Williams, Matt Hopkins (keys)
Lincoln Center’s American Songbook presents
The Blind Boys of Alabama:
Jimmy Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Paul Beasley and tonight, stepping in for Ben Moore, John Leventhal
Joey Williams-Musical Director/Guitar/Vocals
Matt Hopkins-Keyboard, Steve Ray Ladson-Bass, Austin Moore-Drums
February 16, 2018
The Appel Room – Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall