The Blind Boys of Alabama
Spirit of the Century
Now I’m devoutly undevout- but paradoxically, I occasionally enjoy songs of faith. Be it the stirring sounds of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing Qawwali, or Johnny Cash’s many examples of his southern soul, there is such emotion that comes out in their voices that you can’t help but be carried away. But even the most ardent atheist will fall to their knees listening to Spirit of the Century, the 2001 release from the heralded Blind Boys of Alabama. Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, and George Scott have been singing gospel music since they met in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, (Joey Williams joined the group later on vocals and guitar) but it was during the ’80s and ’90s that they crossed over into more mainstream audiences (and began getting Grammy Awards nominations, first for Deep River in 1992) where the group became a staple on roots stages, culminating on Spirit of the Century (Grammy Award winner in 2001), with such distinguished guests such as guitarist John Hammond, harp player Charlie Musselwhite, bassist Danny Thompson, and the maestro himself, David Lindley.
Now this landmark record has been reissued, with 7 additional cuts recorded live at New York City’s The Bottom Line, and rediscovering it has been a joy. Opening with “Jesus Gonna Be Here”, the combination of a powerful singer (in this case Clarence Fountain), coupled with the crème of Americana players (such as Lindley on some stinging slide guitar), it’s a match, well, made in heaven. As is their take on “Amazing Grace”, which is sung to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun”, which definitely takes the old whorehouse anthem to church!
The rest of the record is a tour de force of blues, gospel and funk, including the Season One theme from The Wire, “Way Down In The Hole”, the Tom Waits-penned classic that introduced the group to a younger audience. The backing of the whole record is pitch-perfect, with props to producer John Chelew, who assembled the band and brought a new slant to the gospel of The Blind Boys of Alabama. This is a near perfect union of singers and players, and I challenge anyone not be moved by the “Motherless Child” or “Give A Man A Home” found here. Testify, Blind Boys, testify!