I wish we could live forever
Then melt into the sun
Melt into the sun
Time is gonna change you
Once it gets you on the run
Gets you on the run
There will be
There will be
There will be a light
There will be a light
- Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama
There Will Be A Light
The Blind Boys of Alabama is a gospel group that has been in existence with largely the same membership since 1939. To put this into context, the Blind Boys were performing for sixteen years before Elvis Presley set foot in Sun Records. The group has enjoyed significant mainstream success due to their incorporation of mainstream contemporary songs and interesting arrangements into their traditional gospel sound. Recent collaborations with Kanye West and Ben Harper have also drawn attention to the group, as well as their current string of four consecutive Grammy awards for Best Traditional Gospel Album.
The Blind Boys of Alabama consist of:
Clarence Fountain - group leader & vocals
Jimmy Carter - vocals
George Scott - vocals
Eric McKinnie - drums
Caleb Butler - rhythm guitar
Joey Williams - lead guitar
Tracy Pierce - bass
The group's name comes from the fact that the entire membership is blind; the group formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind.
The Blind Boys of Alabama formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama, with the goal of incorporating elements of soul music into the traditional gospel sound. The group was exposed to the rich tradition of gospel music thanks to the radio: WSGN, out of Birmingham, was a gospel station, and the choir members at the Institute would listen to the station almost fanatically to hear new songs and ideas for their music.
The group spent most of the first forty years of their existence on the traditional gospel circuit, performing largely in the southeastern United States at gospel festivals and larger churches. They released dozens of albums independently, mostly selling them at their shows.
In 1983, the group was included in an off-Broadway musical, The Gospel at Colonus. The musical was a retelling of Greek tragedy reworked with a Pentecostal motif and was a pretty big success, winning an Obie award and running on Broadway for a short while.
The Gospel at Colonus was in many ways the group's big break. They appeared on two soundtrack albums for the musical, which were released in 1984 and 1988, respectively. As a result, the group began to play to larger and more diverse audiences with some shows outside of the gospel circuit.
This greater success led to a deal with Nonesuch Records, which released 1992's Deep River (note that earlier Blind Boys albums can be found; however, they're very much a mixed bag and are being rereleased by small labels hoping to cash in on the band's recent success). Deep River was essentially the genesis of the Blind Boys' modern sound; although they stuck largely to strictly gospel numbers here, they performed a cover of Bob Dylan's I Believe In You (from Dylan's 1979 album Slow Train Coming). It was the first time that the group had actually sought to "gospel-ize" contemporary music, and it was a harbinger of things to come.
Although Deep River met with some mainstream success, the group and Nonesuch ended their arrangement after the album's release, and the Blind Boys spent much of the 1990s honing their sound and searching for the right record label to bring their sound to a much wider audience. In 2000, they found that record label: Real World Records. Real World had a fantastic recording studio and focused on celebrating multicultural music; more importantly, it was founded by Peter Gabriel, who had arranged strong distribution deals with the major record distributors.
After signing with Real World, the group began work on their 2001 breakthrough album, Spirit of the Century. Real World was an interesting environment for the Blind Boys, as the label had weekly jam sessions for all the artists, where they would get together, jam, and share ideas. The result of this creative environment was exposure to many artists and songs that the group had never heard before, and it resulted in the group performing covers of Tom Waits (Way Down In The Hole) and Ben Harper (Give A Man A Home), as well as a complete reworking of Amazing Grace set to the tune of The Animals' House of the Rising Sun. The album received a great deal of mainstream attention upon its release, resulting in the first of four consecutive Grammy wins for the group in the category of Best Traditional Gospel Album.
The group followed this with 2002's Higher Ground, on which the group experimented further with mainstream covers (Prince's The Cross, Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground, Ben Harper's I Shall Not Walk Alone, and Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready) and an extraordinary reworking of George Clinton's You and Your Folks grafted with Psalm 23. This album has a bit more of a "rock" feel than its predecessor due to the presence of Robert Randolph and his Family Band on many tracks. This album also won the Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album.
In 2003, the group released Go Tell It On The Mountain, in which they covered religious-themed Christmas traditionals with a litany of guest artists (notable ones include Tom Waits, George Clinton, Chrissie Hynde, and Me'Shell Ndegeocello). The funked version of Away in a Manger featuring George Clinton is a clear highlight here, and the album won a third consecutive Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album.
2004 saw the group really break through to the mainstream due to the publicity from their Grammy streak as well as the release of their most well-known album (in the mainstream, at least) to date, There Will Be A Light, which is appropriately credited to Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabamal. The entire album consists largely of Ben Harper singing gospel numbers with The Blind Boys as backup, with a few tracks in which he sings duets with various members of the group. The entire album consists of gospel numbers with traditional gospel arrangements, yet with a modern "jam rock" sensibility, and the entire album clicks. This one won the group a fourth consecutive Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album.
The group released another album in 2005, Atom Bomb, in which the group covers Norman Greenbaum's Spirit in the Sky, among others.
I am not much of a fan of gospel music; much of it is repetitive in nature and tries too hard to glorify God without speaking to what it all actually means. The Blind Boys escape this trap; they speak to me on a deep level, combining a deep faith with the understanding that many people are walking a complex spiritual journey in their lives.
For listeners who aren't familiar with gospel music, both There Will Be A Light and Spirit of the Century are strongly recommended. There Will Be A Light is perhaps somewhat more accessible to a mainstream audience, but Spirit of the Century is, in my opinion, the best gospel album I have ever heard.