music (2006-32)

Party Like It’s 1939

The Blind Boys of Alabama have soul to spare

by Mike Gibson

If nothing else, credit the Blind Boys of Alabama for their willingness to integrate new sounds and genres into the traditionalist framework of their archetypal soul-gospel harmonies. The band’s last several albums have been filled with surprisingly organic, seamlessly woven collaborations with newer artists. You know, youngsters, flash-in-the-pan types like the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, and George Clinton.

“We found out that working together works, and that people need people,” says the Blind Boys’ Ricky McKinnie, who often speaks in spiritual aphorisms that would seem insincere had they fallen from lips other than his own. “And what comes from heart, reaches the heart.”

Having joined the group in the late 1980s, McKinnie rates as one of the Blind Boys’ newbies. The 67-year-old outfit still features two original members in Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain; founding member George Scott died only recently, after completion of their newest release Atom Bomb .

The Blind Boys’ history reads like the history of gospel music itself. Founded in 1939 as the Happyland Jubilee Singers, the HJS were one of the first proponents of jubilee, an early form of gospel characterized by a capella singing and tight, disciplined vocal harmonies, usually in quartet.

Having changed their name to The Blind Boys of Alabama in 1944, the group’s first wave of popularity saw its peak in the ’40s and ’50s. They continued to record and tour, though, and eventually gained wider recognition once again in the 1980s with their appearance in The Gospel at Colonus , an award-winning Broadway production starring Morgan Freeman.

And in the ’90s, the Boys’ recording career caught fire again, first with the release of 1992’s Grammy-nominated Deep River , produced by Booker T. Jones and featuring a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe in You,” and then with I Brought Him With Me (1995) and Holding On (1997), both of which also flirted with secular, more contemporary sounds within the context of the group’s reverent, lovingly rendered trad-gospel. According to McKinnie, group members never saw any problem with their freehanded commingling of sacred and secular styles.

“Working with other artists in other kinds of music—it’s good, because it shows that people are just people,” says McKinnie, speaking by hotel phone on the road from the group’s latest tour in support of Atom Bomb . “The important thing to remember is that it’s the words of a song that make it a gospel song. It’s not whether you play this music or that.”

But perhaps the greatest surge in the Blind Boys’ latter-day career came in 2001 with the release of the Grammy-winning Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. If their ’90s work had merely flirted with secular music, Spirit represented an out-and-out proposition, featuring covers of songs by the Rolling Stones, Ben Harper, and Tom Waits, and contributions from eclectic rock guitarist David Lindley and bluesman John Hammond.

Two more Grammy-winning albums later (including 2004’s There Will Be a Light , with backup from Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals), and the Blind Boys have released what some are calling their most varied and pop-oriented record yet. Among Atom Bomb ’s distinguished guests are Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo, blues harp great Charlie Musselwhite, and rapper The Gift of Gab from Blackalicious.

“We try to listen to a lot of different music,” McKinnie says of the Blind Boys’ diverse musical forays. “It’s important to remember that everything has its own time. When the Blind Boys were first out, jubilee was the thing, and it was a forerunner of rap and hip-hop. Now young people are into rap and hip-hop, because that’s what they know. That’s the music of their time.”

But lest you doubt, McKinnie reminds that faith is ever at the core of what the Blind Boys do. Of the group’s popular resurgence and decades-spanning career, McKinnie says, “It only goes to show that what the Bible says is true. The Bible says that if you be faithful of a few things, God will make you a master of many greater things. Our faith is the heart of our music, and sure enough, God has truly opened the window of blessing and poured it out on the Blind Boys.”

Who: The Blind Boys of Alabama