Faithful Harmonies

Blind Boys of Alabama open new generations to gospel music.

Founded in 1939, the Blind Boys of Alabama are finally being recognized for their exquisite, otherworldly gospel harmonies, evidenced by their Grammy two months ago for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album.

Founded at the Talladega Institute for the Blind by Clarence Fountain, the lead singer, the band has enjoyed a lifetime of success on the gospel circuit.

Gospel quartets in their present form are a relatively new development to a music whose roots go back centuries from Africa's Ivory Coast to Southern plantations. The uniquely American musical genre of Negro spirituals evolved in performance to small vocal quartets that became the toast of Europe during the Victorian era. With the advent of radio and 78 rpm records throughout rural America in the 1920s and '30s, neo-traditional gospel songs, based on the old spirituals but often with highly contemporary lyrics and even jazzy elements, began appearing.

For a time, gospel music flourished separate but equal to country music, building a two-tiered industry. One last refinement, the emergence of a lead singer/frontman from the previously anonymous ensemble, gave rise to the contemporary performance standard and fueled a post-World War II boom in gospel music. When thousands of black servicemen returned home, they found local groups like the Blind Boys of Alabama, and their even wilder rival, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, ready to entertain them. (Originally called the Happy Land Singers and the Jackson Harmonies, respectively, both got their more recognized monikers in a head-to-head gospel music contest.)

Gospel music had a major influence on modern pop, as young white Southern musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley crossed the color line. At the same time, a more secular branch of gospel gave rise to soul music. Early soul singers, including Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett, often started their careers in gospel quartets.

Throughout it all, the Blind Boys of Alabama resisted temptation and sang the Lord's music. They began touring and recording in the 1940s and continue today.

Perhaps tapping the same nostalgia-approving vein that sent the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack to astronomical levels, the Blind Boys' most recent album, Spirit of the Century, has also provided manna. It matches their traditional harmonies with adventurous instrumental backing by world rocker David Lindley, and bluesmen John Hammond and Charles Musselwhite to songs by Ben Harper, Tom Waites and Mick Jagger/Keith Richards as well as traditional material like "Good Religion" and "Motherless Child."

By being both timeless and contemporary, the Blind Boys of Alabama are opening the ears of a new audience and making believers of us all.