The Blind Boys of Alabama
As a teenager, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon dreamed of working with his heroes, except his weren’t the typical heroes for a kid growing up in the Midwest during the 1990s. When his friends were getting into punk and hip-hop, the seventeen-year-old Vernon was obsessed with gospel music. As teenagers, he and his best friend—and future band mate—Phil Cook steeped themselves in its sound and history, devouring every record they could get their hands on: Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Mahalia Jackson. “We leaned on each other for discovering new gospel music,” Vernon recalls, “and we spent years studying and going back to the big cornerstone gospel groups and singers.”
This eclectic and intensely devoted education would later shape the music they made together—first, in DeYarmond Edison, and separately, in Vernon’s group Bon Iver and Cook’s band Megafaun. “Gospel music for me has always reminded me of being a child,” muses Cook. “When you’re a little kid and you love something, it’s such an honest love. It’s a pure example of what I like to think of as the inescapable. You just can’t escape the music you love.”
By their twenties, the two friends had discovered the Blind Boys of Alabama, who opened up a new world of seemingly endless musical possibilities. Says Vernon: “What was different about those early 2000’s Blind Boys records was that first, they were on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, and second, they were doing Tom Waits tunes and playing with dudes we recognized from the blues and folk scenes.”
What impressed them, in other words, was the Blind Boys’ loose definition of gospel music, which allowed the singers to measure the spiritual dimensions of rock and pop songs, of blues music, of funk and folk and everything in between. The Blind Boys of Alabama aren’t merely a group of singers borrowing from decades-old gospel traditions; rather, they are themselves the group who helped define and cement those traditions during the course of the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first. They first sang together at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega in the late 1930s. To put that in perspective, the group predates the attack on Pearl Harbor and the development of the twelve-inch vinyl album (only ‘78s’ were available at the time). When they began singing together, “separate but equal” was still a sad summary of race relations in the United States.
Touring throughout the South during the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 1950s—when blacks were denied the use of whites-only water fountains, bathrooms, and restaurants—the Blind Boys persevered and even flourished thanks to their unique sound, which blended the close harmonies of early jubilee gospel with the more fervent improvisations of hard gospel. During the 1960s, they sang at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and provided a soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement, which adopted both the Christian message and the dignity of old gospel songs. During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, gospel groups that had originated in the church began recording secular music, yet the Blind Boys of Alabama stuck to their calling. “We sing gospel music,” says Carter. “That’s what we do. We’re not going to ever deviate from that.”
Few would have expected them to still be going strong—stronger than ever, even—so many years after they first joined voices, but they’ve proved as productive and as musically ambitious in the twenty-first century as they did in the twentieth. In 2001, they released Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label, mixing traditional church tunes with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, and winning their first Grammy Award. The next year they backed Gabriel on his album Up and joined him on a world tour, although a bigger break may have come when David Simon chose their cover of Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” as the theme song for the first season of The Wire. The HBO series remains critically regarded as the greatest television show ever aired. Subsequent Grammy-winning albums have found them working with Robert Randolph & the Family Band (2002’s Higher Ground), a plethora of special guests including Waits and Mavis Staples (2003’s Go Tell It On The Mountain), Ben Harper (2004’s There Will Be a Light), and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (2007’s Down in New Orleans).
Nearly seventy-five years after they hit their first notes together, the Blind Boys of Alabama are exceptional not only in their longevity, but also in the breadth of their catalog and their relevance to contemporary roots music. Since 2000, they’ve won five Grammys and four Gospel Music Awards, and have delivered their spiritual message to countless listeners. “We appreciate the accolades and we thank God for them,” says Jimmy Carter, a founding member and the Blind Boys’ leader for five years now. “But we’re not interesting in money or anything other than singing gospel. We had no idea when we started that we would make it this far. The secret to our longevity is, we love what we do. And when you love what you do, that keeps you motivated. That keeps you alive.”
The collaboration between one of popular music’s longest-running acts and one of its fastest-rising stars came about naturally—not from the ledger of a label exec but from the artists’ desires to create something new and lasting. Originally, the Blind Boys planned to work with several different producers to create an album, but as plans developed, it became clear that Vernon had the knowledge and vision to make an informed, one-of-a-kind full-length with the group. That album is I’ll Find a Way.
In a few short years Justin Vernon has established himself as one of the most innovative musicians working today, an artist who can seamlessly translate various genres into music that is both familiar and idiosyncratic. Best known for his work with Bon Iver, he has shown remarkable range in his side projects: tackling party funk with Gayngs, mastering blues-rock with the Shouting Matches, producing an album by alt-country singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards, and collaborating with James Blake, the Flaming Lips, Anaïs Mitchell, the Chieftains, and—most notoriously—Kanye West.
When Vernon got the offer to work with his gospel heroes, he didn’t waste any time before calling up his old friend Cook. “I really did call Phil right away,” he says, “because it was just so crazy that he and I would have the opportunity to work with them.” Their first step: making a list of songs for the Blind Boys to sing. That was easy, as they’d been dreaming up that list for years. In addition to some gospel chestnuts, including “My God Is Real” and “I Shall Not Be Moved,” Vernon and Cook “wanted to include some contemporary midwestern songwriting,” says Cook, a Wisconsin native. “So we included songs by Charlie Parr from Duluth and our friend Chris Porterfield from Milwaukee.” And Hibbing, Minnesota’s favorite son, Bob Dylan.
Adds Vernon: “We tried to find a bunch of songs that could say something substantial and not just be some academic rundown of a couple of white folks’ understanding of gospel. I didn’t want to rewrite the book, but I also wanted to do something a little dirtier, something approaching that early ‘60s Sam Cooke/SAR Records sound, which is my favorite era of gospel.”
“He picked out some good stuff,” says Carter. “He picked out some traditional stuff that we were familiar with, but he also brought some songs that we were not aware of. After we listened to them, we knew they fit us. We were very impressed with the depth of Justin and Phil’s knowledge of gospel music in general and of the Blind Boys in particular.”
In the studio, they pared that long list of songs down to a dynamic and wide-ranging eleven tracks that demonstrate both the depth of the Blind Boys’ gospel and the breadth of American songwriting. The Blind Boys decamped to Vernon’s April Base studio in rural Wisconsin to record, which took the Alabama natives out of their element. This was December, so the temperature dropped while the snow piled up – almost a foot of it, in fact.
But the atmosphere in the studio dispelled any dampening effects the weather might have had on the lifelong southerners. Says Carter, “We were made welcome. It was so warm in there. The hearth was warm and the friendship was warm. The sessions had a lot of fellowship and brotherhood. We ended up eating a lot of meals together at the kitchen table.” In fact, the April Base studio cook tried her hand at southern soul food, and the musicians all bonded at the dinner table. “Oh my god, it was so good,” recalls Cook. “On the last day she cooked collard greens and beef stew and made this blowout dinner. The Blind Boys were so happy they were flipping out.”
“When we got into the studio, we were feeling it,” says Vernon. “We all got into it and debated the arrangements and worked really well together. We felt that certain way in the studio when you know you’re working on a special record. I’m always amazed when that happens.”
Working with the Blind Boys, Vernon and Cook, along with their hand-picked backing musicians (Mike Lewis, Reggie Pace and JT Bates), became students again of the gospel greats—only this time, they learned directly from the source. Just sitting in the control room while Carter and the group worked through vocal arrangements became a master class in harmonizing and singing. “Their voices are seasoned!” Vernon exclaims. “Those pipes are brass. They’re loud and they come through beautifully. When they start harmonizing together, you body just does stuff. I was beside myself.”
When the Blind Boys left the studio each night, Vernon, Cook, and the backing musicians—including members of the Boys’ band and studio players hand-picked by Vernon—cut loose. “We would record late,” says Cook. “The Blind Boys singers would go home after dinner, and we’d hang around and try to knock out one or two tracks of backing material. We would be playing and sweating and laughing all night, then we’d go to bed exhilarated. And in the morning the Blind Boys would come in and we’d sit there and listen to them sing their asses off all day.”
One Blind Boy who couldn’t make the trip to Wisconsin was Clarence Fountain, a founding member of the group and its leader for many decades. Health problems requiring thrice-weekly kidney dialysis have prevented him from touring with the other members of the group for years. In the spirit of the album title, however, the Blind Boys found a way to include him, recording his robust bass vocals in Birmingham, Alabama, and adding them to the mix.
“That’s an important part, that bass under everything,” explains Carter, the group’s leader and standout tenor. “He gave those songs a true Blind Boys bottom. We wouldn’t want to do a Blind Boys project without including Clarence. We want to have him on every project that we do. He will always be a Blind Boy even if he’s not out on the road with us.”
Together, they have created a rousing album that addresses life’s most desperate hours but also savors the triumphs and reassurances of faith. “God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud” is rambling country-gospel learned from an old Ralph Stanley album. “I’ve Been Searching” is a taut reggae anthem featuring Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond lends her soaring voice to the title track, taken from an obscure album by a Motown session player named Ted Lucas.
And Casey Dienel sings lead on the Chi-Lites’ “There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Is Seated at the Conference Table),” whose luxuriant string arrangement has been replaced with a stoical beat, quietly ascending keyboard theme, and stirring tenor saxophone solo courtesy of Minneapolis musician Mike Lewis. “That was definitely a song we could relate to,” says Carter, “because those guys, the Chi-Lites, were quartet singers themselves and they came out of the church. It was a natural fit for the Blind Boys, and of course the sentiment is good.” Although “There Will Never Be Any Peace” was written in 1974, its message of accountability, forgiveness, and humanity resounds loudly in 2013. “I had never heard that song before these sessions,” Vernon admits in the album liner notes. “We were struggling to find one last mid-tempo tune when Charles [Driebe], the group’s manager, suggested it. It’s such a wonderfully strange song. Casey Dienel is easily one of the most underrated singers we have in our canon, and she was one of the first people I thought of to invite to sing on this record. The interplay between her and the others singers is truly something to behold.”
The newest tune on I’ll Find a Way is “I Am Not Waiting Anymore,” written by Chris Porterfield of Field Report. Porterfield played in DeYarmond Edison with Vernon and Cook in the early 2000s, but only released his first Field Report album in 2012. On I’ll Find a Way, the song has been slowed down, with a sympathetic trombone chorus added, and rewritten slightly from its original version by Porterfield at the request of the Blind Boys. It features lead vocals by Sam Amidon, an encyclopedia of American traditional and roots music. “It was a blessing to hear Sam’s unique voice reshape one of my good friend’s songs,” Vernon writes in the liners. “He’s taken old gospel fables and spun their words around to mean something completely new and different. He has that rare ability of displaying simultaneously the simplicity and complexity of a single lyric. For a while the song was on the chopping block. It wasn’t until Sam stepped in that we knew we had a keeper.”
Even into their 70s and 80s, age and fading health have not decreased the Blind Boys’ talent or their commitment to their craft. For them, gospel is less a musical genre than a life’s calling, explains Carter. “It’s more than just singing. There’s a message. We’re bringing a message to the people. And that message is the good news of God.”
Vernon, however, approaches the spiritual side of gospel from the complex position of a non-religious person. “I’m anti-church,” he admits, “yet I find something extremely valuable in this music. Gospel music—especially black gospel music—describes a struggle that is very real for everyone. It’s a means of searching for one’s identity, which is always a sacred quest. When Paul Beasley of the Blind Boys sings ‘Take Me to the Water,’ I just crumble. I don’t have the strength not to crumble. When he sings, in a way I believe in what he believes in. And that’s bigger than we can put into words.”
Perhaps that sense of spiritual empathy can only be expressed through gospel music, which makes the Blind Boys’ cross-genre excursions not merely musical exercises, but sacred missions. That gospel can accommodate both great belief and lingering doubt is perhaps best demonstrated on I’ll Find a Way by the cover of “Every Grain of Sand,” penned by Bob Dylan during his Christian period.
“Every Grain of Sand” is loaded with personal weight for Vernon, who discovered the song during a particularly dark time in his life: “My last year of college, I was taking a class called the Problem of Evil. It took up so much of my time, and I spent months discussing the worst shit that’s ever happened to human beings and deciding that there was absolutely no reason for any of it. When I was writing my senior thesis, I listened to ‘Every Grain of Sand’ on repeat. It was all I listened to for months.”
At the time he had no idea he would be singing that song with one of his heroes. In their translation of “Every Grain of Sand,” Vernon and Carter opted to turn it into a dialogue between believer and non-believer. “Dylan has resided on both sides of that line,” Vernon explains. “As a writer, I think the song exists on both sides of the line as well, so Jimmy and I are both coming from such different places, and yet we’re singing about the same thing. There are two perspectives in that song, and they’re colliding.”
That collision of worldviews—not only between Christian and non-Christian, but also between Southerner and Midwesterner, between black and white, between young and old—drives the music of I’ll Find a Way, which is as fiery and as fervent and as fearless as you would expect from the Blind Boys. That the group can transition so smoothly from an old Philly soul tune to a new indie folk ballad and from a century-old spiritual to a ‘70s reggae nugget is a testament to their incredible range as singers and as interpreters. I’ll Find a Way proves a sonically adventurous and spiritually generous album, yet everything falls neatly under the gospel label. “We sing from the heart, and what comes from the heart reaches the heart,” says Carter. “If you have any feeling in you, you will feel the Blind Boys.”