Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Written by john from altjiranga mitjina

I’m not much of a church-going man, but strangely I find the music of the church has a soothing effect. The call and response of the Spiritual infuses me with an almost religious feeling of joy and happiness. There is so much emotion in the musical shouting of these songs. This week’s voice to hear is a veteran gospel group of over sixty years. Also along with a voice this week we’re also going to talk about a specific song.

The group is the Blind Boys of Alabama. The group was formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. Two founding members, Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter are still performing with the band. They’ve added a few newer members in the years following their debut. The Blind Boys of Alabama worked the traditional gospel circuit for over 40 years, releasing albums that primarily found an audience with the Christian following.

In 1982 they made something of a cross over between the religious audience and the secular one with their appearance at the World’s Fair in Knoxville. The next year they appeared in a smash musical drama off-Broadway The Gospel at Colonus. During the nineties they released a couple of albums that had some cross over potential, but never quite made the reach across between the pop audience and the religious one.

All the changed in 2001 when they released Spirit of the Century. Their booking agent and producer decided to self finance the album that he knew the group could make. This album brought them to the attention of the music world outside the gospel one. It was the start of a string of Grammy Awards for them. The music on this album mixed traditional gospel songs with contemporary songs by such writers as Tom Waits, Ben Harper, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Their version of “Amazing Grace” was sung over the tune of the traditional blues “House of the Rising Son.”

“Amazing Grace” has become one of those songs that has become more than just a standard. Everyone from gospel singers to jazz to rock to punk rockers have covered this song. This song is so ingrained into the fabric of our musical heritage, but what do we know of it?

The song was written by a former slave trader, John Newton, who reformed and became a Christian minister. Newton was captured and held prisoner on Plantain Island off the African coast for close to a year. After being rescued he converted to Christianity on the trip home. Years later he wrote the hymn after he became a minister.

They hymn crossed the Atlantic in the early 1800s and was put to the now familiar music by a singing instructor from South Carolina. The song spread throughout the South with the growing revival tents that moved from one Southern town to another.

Today the song is heard performed by everyone from Elvis Presley to KC and the Sunshine Band to Tori Amos to Ani Difranco to Dropkick Murphys to…well the list is just about endless.

“Amazing Grace” wasn’t sung at his Dad’s funeral, but the songs that were did provide a certain amount of comfort. This past week has been one of the hardest he‘s ever had to live through, but there is a relief that his Dad is no longer in such pain. John from altjiranga mitjina continues to speak as if he's not the one writing this.


The Farmers Wife said...

It's one of those songs that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Mama Zen said...

John, I am so sorry for your loss. I hope that music is bringing you some small measure of comfort.

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