I remember the first time I ever heard Black Gospel music live as if it were yesterday. It was a bright Sunday morning on the Toronto Islands, just offshore of downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, but as far removed from the city as being 100 miles up country. It was 1978 and the Mariposa Folk Festival still made its home in this picturesque setting. The early morning show this Sunday featured a group from New Orleans.
The Zion Harmonisers were five black men of varying ages dressed impeccably in identical suits. They stood on the lawn with the late morning sun shining down upon them, singing about their love of Jesus and telling the stories of the Bible in song. I'd never experienced anything quite like it in the world. It was as if the passion that went into the best religious paintings of the Renaissance had been brought to life in front of my eyes.
The word Harmonisers in their name wasn't just idle talk. It was probably the day I first understood what was meant by vocal harmonies. Listening to those five voices singing the same song, each one was slightly different from the other, but all parts made up the whole. I'm sure the soundman won't ever forget the bass singer. He hit a note so deep and resonant that, even through the speakers you felt your sternum vibrate, and I saw the technician whipping headphones off his ears. It was a note too big too be held in by anything electronic.
That's the thing about great gospel music – it's such a big feeling inside of the singers that they can't hold it in. The emotion behind the belief has to be released somehow and song is the only force strong enough, with a pure enough expression of the raw human spirit, to carry it up and away to the heavens. As the Jewish people would say, from your lips to God's ear and if their God can't hear the voices of these singers then he needs to get himself a hearing aid.
The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama (not to be confused with The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi) formed in 1937 at the Talladega Institute For The Deaf And Blind. They all had been taught to play piano via Braille, so they had a basic understanding of music. Not having much else to do, they taught themselves how to sing and harmonize with their primary teacher — the radio and the gospel music shows.
They first started performing by sneaking out of school and singing at nearby military camps during World War II. They didn't start out as the Blind Boys, but as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers and were fronted by Velma Bozman Traylor. When Velma was killed in 1947, they decided to change their name. They never had any qualms about using their blindness as a selling point and decided to imitate the Mississippi quintet in 1948 and took the name they (slightly modified) carry to this day.
Clarence Fountain has led the group since then and continues to sing to this day. Unlike other groups, the Blind Boys of Alabama haven't been afraid to experiment with their sound over the years and have toured and recorded with other performers like Ben Harper, George Clinton, Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde, and Aaron Neville.
But through it all, they have remained true to what they believe in and deliver Gospel music as passionately as any other group under the sun. Walk With Me Dear Lord, released by the Music Avenue label, is a fine example of the range of material and the breadth of arrangements they incorporate into their performances.
"Walk With Me" leads the disc off with an almost pop feel, which I found slightly disconcerting as it didn't jibe with my pre-existing definition of Black Gospel music. But it works as a lead in to the more demonstrative numbers. Taken in context with the rest of the disc, it makes sense as well because it allows them to build to crescendos and then pull back down again into something more muted.
It would probably be just a little much to expect an audience to be able to sit through seventeen songs as stirring and passionate as "Old Time Religion", so the inclusion of songs like "Danny Boy," which might seem a little strange, is understandable. Anyway, it doesn't matter what songs they sing, these guys could make a vocalization of the phone book sound amazing.
The depth of the passion, the harmonies, the intensity, and the sheer joy they bring to each and every song can't fail to lift up your spirits. I don't care what or who you believe in, it's the belief that matters in cases like, this not the specifics of who. Devotion like that expressed by the Blind Boys Of Alabama transcends our simplistic notions of religion and divisions of faiths.
It's a representation of the universal power of belief all of us share for what it is we have faith in, and thus can't fail to move us one way or another. In much the same way beautiful devotional art — whether Muslim, Christian, Hindi, Jewish, or any other belief — can appeal to us on a primal level, this music taps into an old and sincere part of our being. It is truly ecstatic.
Walk With Me Dear Lord by The Blind Boys Of Alabama is a religious experience all on its own and is more than enough reason to believe in the existence of a higher power, no matter what you want to call it. Inspiration for music like this can't be found just lying around on the ground, so something or someone somewhere has to be whispering in their ear and giving them direction and guidance.
What other explanation is there?