As their heroes, the Golden Gate Quartet, had done, the Blind Boys Of Alabama began singing for white liberal audiences in nightclubs, in theaters, at folk festivals and at jazz festivals. And they began recording for white liberal record labels.
Booker T. Jones of the MGs produced 1992′s Deep River (Elektra/Nonesuch) for the same American Explorer series that introduced Jimmie Dale Gilmore to the wider world. The Blind Boys were recorded live at Hollywood’s trendy House Of Blues for the 1995 album I Brought Him With Me (House Of Blues). The same label released the 1997 studio album Holdin’ On.
“A lot of people criticize the Blind Boys for singing in the House Of Blues and places like that,” Carter acknowledges. “But the way we look at it, a lot of folks need to hear the gospel, but they don’t want to go to church. So we bring the gospel to wherever they are. The Bible says, ‘Go to the highways and hedges.’ It doesn’t say to just stay in church. If you can make a man think in a nightclub, go in there and sing to him. We have been in clubs and make people take a second look at themselves. That’s been known to happen.”
“It makes a big difference singing in festivals and concert halls,” Fountain insists, “because you get paid. Some folks call it selling out, but I call that getting paid for the work you’ve done. We still go to churches, but you’re not going to make any money there, because the preacher is going to make sure that you don’t get too much money.”
In 1998, the Blind Boys Of Alabama went out on the “Highway 61″ package tour sponsored by House Of Blues. Every night the gospel group would join the headliner for one number — either John Hammond on “Motherless Child” or Buddy Guy on “Little Red Rooster”.
It was a vivid demonstration that, despite decades of antagonism, blues and gospel are actually very close relatives. And it gave Chris Goldsmith, the Blind Boys’ booking agent, the idea for an album that would take advantage of these close relations. To oversee the project, Goldsmith enlisted John Chelew, who had produced John Hiatt’s 1987 breakthrough Bring The Family and helped turn the back room of McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, into one of the nation’s most revered venues for acoustic music.
“When I produced the Richard Thompson tribute record Beat The Retreat in 1994, I recorded the Blind Boys singing ‘Dimming Of The Day’ at McCabe’s,” Chelew recalls. “I liked that so much that I had them sing behind Bonnie Raitt on ‘When The Spell Is Broken’. I loved their sound; they sounded like the Sam & Dave of gospel.
“But the only albums of theirs I liked were the albums they cut for Specialty in the ’50s. Everyone else tried to smooth out the sound and homogenize it. We wanted to move forward by going back. By returning to the well, we could do something new. We wanted to keep the rawness of the gospel music, and I thought we could do that by leaning on the blues.”
Chelew chose the backing band: blues revivalist Hammond, Jackson Browne sidekick Lindley, Chicago blues veteran Musselwhite, and Richard Thompson’s recent touring partner, Danny Thompson. Chelew also hand-picked the tunes, mixing traditional hymns such as “Run On For A Long Time”, “Good Religion” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” with contemporary compositions by Ben Harper and Tom Waits. (Harper is on a real gospel roll, with two other songs on the superb new Holmes Brothers album Speaking In Tongues.)
Chelew’s most audacious move was having the Blind Boys sing the lyrics from “Amazing Grace” to the music from “House Of The Rising Sun”. “If you’re singing about God’s amazing grace,” he says, “that has one effect on your psyche. But if you’re singing about a whorehouse called the House Of The Rising Sun, that will have a different effect. I wanted to show how the same music can have the same power but an entirely different meaning with different words.”
“The gospel and the blues are so close together,” concedes Carter. “You could take a blues, and all you’d have to do to make it gospel is take out the word baby and put the word Jesus there and you’d have a gospel tune. And it works in reverse, too. That’s why you see a lot of these blues artists — B.B. King, Bobby Womack and them — coming out with gospel albums now. I don’t see too much opposition.
“When we grew up, we heard the blues on the radio all the time, guys like Blind Boy Fuller and Muddy Waters. I loved them then and I still do. For me, the blues had a feeling — we called it soul — and we just put that feeling into the gospel.”
“Almost every song on the album is a blues,” agrees Chelew, “but maybe that’s something about gospel I didn’t realize beforehand. Maybe blues are gospel songs with words about women and whiskey. Maybe gospel songs are blues songs with words about Jesus. Maybe your woman is your savior.
“I always get those two confused.”
Like Fidel Castro, ND contributing editor Geoffrey Himes learned his theology at a Jesuit high school.