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Soul for the Season

The Blind Boys of Alabama spread Christmas cheer

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"I didn't come from Alabama to New York lookin' for Jesus, I brought him with me."-- Clarence Fountain, onstage at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, December 2003

The legendary Blind Boys of Alabama are bringing their newly revised "Go Tell It on the Mountain" Christmas show to Atlanta's Symphony Hall, spreading holiday cheer in their inimitable soul-gospel style. The three surviving members of the original group -- Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott -- have sung together for more than 60 years, trudging the traditional gospel circuit for the first 40. Then, in 1983, their role in the Obie Award-winning musical The Gospel at Colonus brought them to the attention of a broader audience. In the years since, Ricky McKinnie, Caleb Butler, Joey Williams and Tracy Pierce joined the team.

Yet in all that time, the Blind Boys had never recorded a Christmas album until 2003, and it became their third Grammy winner in the Best Traditional Soul Gospel category. The CD was re-released this year with a bonus track added and royalties benefiting the American Diabetes Association.

For group leader, Clarence Fountain, memories of Christmas go back to his childhood in the rural town of Tyler, Ala. He knew when it was Christmas because that was the only time he got oranges, apples and candy all at the same time. He also recalls there was always a modest Christmas program at school.

"Every year, before everybody would go home for Christmas, [we] just had to have a Christmas program," says Fountain, in a telephone interview. "Nothing spectacular, but it was just something to do. Those were good times. You know, you think about it, look back over your life and see where you come from, and how you made it this far, and it stands out pretty good. We've come a long way, been able to survive all these years, and we thank the good Lord for all the things he's done for us."

He considers that sort of gratitude and fellowship to be the real meaning behind Christmas. "Sometimes people get the wrong impression about Christmas," Fountain continues, thinking about the popular image of Santa Claus coming to town. "But what is Santa Claus gonna bring me? If he don't bring me nothin', then he can stay where he is. [He laughs.] The most important thing is Christ was born on Christmas Day ... . If you put Christmas in the right perspective ... [it is] a time of giving more than getting, and of being with friends, family, community and welcoming the stranger at the door."

That's the spirit behind the Blind Boys' Christmas show, which draws upon not only the Christmas album and other songs of the season, but from their other two Grammy-winning CDs and traditional Blind Boys gospel fare. "We don't come to preach to a person," says drummer Ricky McKinnie. "We come to sing the good news, and we sing music that makes you want to get up and clap your hands."

Today, the Blind Boys' music is much broader than the traditional gospel fare of their early years. The Christmas album is one example of how the Blind Boys have drawn music from other styles and made it their own. "I feel like they've gotten to a point like John Lee Hooker got to late in his life, where all he had to do was say a word or play a note and it was undeniably him," says their executive producer Chris Goldsmith. "They put their stamp on anything they sing."

"We want everyone to come and just have a great time," says Fountain. "When you come to see the Blind Boys, we try to make you feel something that you've never felt before."

music@creativeloafing.com

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