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After 60 years, gospel group still seeks higher ground


With the release of “Higher Ground,” the Blind Boys of Alabama roll over another tick on the odometer of a 60-plus year career as a gospel music powerhouse. In light of the Grammy awarded to the group for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album in 2001 for “Spirit of the Century,” the Blind Boys follow up with this record, taking its name from a Stevie Wonder track on the album.

“Higher Ground” is similar to the group’s 2001 release, mixing secular songs with sacred hymns.

Founded in 1939 at the Talladega Institute for the Blind in Alabama, this group has been singing gospel music continuously since that time. Three founding members still remain: Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott. Newer arrivals Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie and Bobby Butler add their soulful harmonies on the record.

Robert Randolph and his Family Band provide the music behind the voices. Randolph is a 24-year-old performer of “sacred steel” music. Sacred steel refers to Pentecostal church services where pedal steel guitar is the bedrock of the music liturgy, in lieu of a pipe organ. Vocalist and guitarist Ben Harper also lends his talents throughout the album, notably on the opener, a rendition of the Curtis Mayfield classic “People Get Ready.” The Blind Boys also perform a tune penned by Harper, titled “I Shall Not Walk Alone,” a tender song of redemption, with the feel of a contemporary, yet classic, gospel number:

And when I’m tired and weary
And a long, long way from home
I just reach for Mother Mary
And I shall not walk alone

This gospel group has become known for reinventing material by artists from the world beyond the church. Their Grammy-winning “Spirit of the Century” contained songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones. “Higher Ground” boasts numbers written by Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Prince and Stevie Wonder.

Wonder’s “Higher Ground” is a great centerpiece and namesake for the record. “When we leave here, we will meet Jesus in the air, we will meet him on the higher ground,” Fountain, the group’s baritone, told NCR. “It’s all about the words you’re singing. When we made this record, the producers had a pile of songs and we picked the ones we could sing. If the lyrics are right, we’ll sing it.” Fountain is partial to “Many Rivers to Cross,” an old Jimmy Cliff reggae tune that is inherently prayerful:

Many rivers to cross
But I just can’t seem to find
My way over

The Blind Boys have blurred the line between religious and popular song, exposing gospel music’s relation to rhythm-and-blues, blues and to rock music. They have performed as an opening act for the likes of Merle Haggard and Tom Petty. Petty said the Blind Boys “shook the building every night” that they opened his 1999 tour.

More than six decades and 21 albums after their beginning, the Blind Boys of Alabama seem to be finding their stride. On keeping the music fresh, Fountain said: “Keep your ears open and listen, and keep up with the style of singing.” Not a bad perspective from a man in his 70s. Fountain told NCR he foresees 150-plus performance dates, with some overseas, for 2003, and he says the group will do “one more CD and that’s it!”

Matt Stoulil is NCR layout assistant. His e-mail address is mstoulil@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002