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singing in praise of the blues:

The Blind Boys of Alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama

May 30, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

Sixty-three years - longer than most marriages - the Blind Boys of Alabama have criss-crossed the globe spreading the Gospel in song to crowds from the Deep South to Norway.

But their long history and continued popularity had not once translated into hardware in the form of a Grammy Award.

So February's citation for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album served as sweet vindication for the group that got its start as a group of students at Talladega Institute for the Blind in Alabama.

The trophy followed glowing critical praise that called the disc an ambitious left turn for a group that could just as easily have rested on their laurels in the twilight of their career.

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All for an album Blind Boys vocalist and co-founder Clarence Fountain is lukewarm about.

"I didn't like it, to tell you the truth," the 72-year-old singer says prior to soundcheck during a two-week swing through England. "Because it was kind of different and in my estimation we weren't putting out the way we were supposed to."

Ironic then that the album, 2001's "Spirit of the Century," is what brought the eight-man vocal group to the attention of Western Maryland Blues Fest co-founder Carl Disque.

The Blind Boys headline Sunday's free concert at City Park in Hagerstown.

"That's the one that blew me away, that hit me in a very, very special way because it combined blues and Gospel and spirituality," Disque says of the group's new CD.

"I just said to the rest of the people on programming, 'We have to get them.'"

Marrying old spirituals and tunes by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, "Spirit of the Century" forced the Blind Boys to stretch in ways they didn't always feel were comfortable.

From Redding, England, where the group was midway through a two-week stint, Fountain remembers chafing at some of what was required of him.

Take "Amazing Grace," a four-minute, 18-second recasting of the spiritual to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." The result is a haunting reinvention with a plaintive electric guitar and grizzled vocals by Fountain and another original Blind Boy, George Scott.

"It's hard to go in and change the melody when it's been sung down through the years," Fountain says. "But people jumped at it and it's become one of the best tunes on the album, you know."

The song certainly appealed to Disque, who has always wanted to make the Sunday component of Blues Fest more spiritual.

That the group's Grammy-winning effort contained a blues groove accentuated by backing from musical legends such as Charlie Musselwhite and Blues Fest veteran John Hammond made the decision to invite the Blind Boys that much easier.

"We like to do people who have some sort of history, a legend quality if you will," Disque says. "Not only have they honed their craft because they've done it so long, but they play some role in the evolution of the music."

The secret to continued relevance, Fountain says, is to keep up with what's new, listening to all musical styles and being willing to adapt.

"You see, it ain't what you like," he says matter of factly. "It's what the people like."

Still, the Blind Boys remained true to their spiritual roots even as contemporaries such as Sam Cooke crossed over to pop success.

Fountain says it is a result of following God's path and remaining true to His guidance.

"We just do the things that come naturally and try to make a living and do well," he says. "I thought about it and my theory is if you serve the Lord and serve him well, he'll give you longevity.

"And I'm not worried because we've been going a long time and nothing has happened to us. If you do what's right, He'll keep up with you."

Just try keeping up with the Blind Boys. On the heels of continuous touring, the troupe has squeezed in work with Peter Gabriel to record a song for an upcoming film soundtrack.

In September, they will unveil another new album. Like "Spirit of the Century," the arrangements have taken the Blind Boys out of their comfort zone.

Unlike its predecessor, the new album leaves Fountain overwhelmingly pleased with the end result.

"It has a lot of good material; it's got songs that anyone can sit down and listen to," he says. "It all comes out right. I like all the tunes, I guarantee you that."

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