In the two and a half years since the flooding that followed hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, everybody seems to be lining up to pay homage to the role the city and its people have played in the development of African American music in North America. It is wonderful that the majority of the attention has been directed towards raising money to restore the city and the musical heartbeat that is its soul. Yet, it does beg the question as to where everybody was in the years before Katrina.
That the musicians, who everybody is praising to the sky now, were living lives so close to the edge that they couldn't afford insurance for their most valued possessions, including the instruments they depended on to make their living, in the first place is a sad commentary on just how neglected that community had been for years. Even before the levees broke, people who had given their lives to the music were dependent on private organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America to ensure the basic necessities of food and rent.
The fact that people like Johnnie Mae Dunson, a woman who wrote over six hundred songs including some recorded by the likes of Elvis, was reduced to depending on charity in order to survive is a reminder of how the music industry exploited the people responsible for its existence. The crime that is being perpetrated by the failure to rebuild housing and infrastructure in New Orleans, because it's cheaper to let people rot in refugee camps across America, is simply that attitude made into official public policy. (See the chapter on New Orleans in Naomi Klien's book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism for a detailed description of the plans being made to ensure people don't return to the city.)
Thankfully, there are some people who are doing their best to ensure that at the least their friends won't be forgotten. They are stepping up to be counted among those who care. It's not surprising that a good many are those who have seen their fair share of the injustices. The Blind Boys Of Alabama are no strangers to overcoming hardship, yet have always striven to spread a message of hope and inspiration.
The original group was formed in 1939 at a school for blind, black children in Alabama. Naturally the group has gone through changes in membership since then, with only singer Jimmy Carter left from the original group. According to Jimmy the group has always wanted to record in New Orleans, and now seemed like the right time to do it. "I can't get up on a ladder with a hammer and nails", he says, "But me and the guys can sing inspirational songs that will help lift people's hearts while they hammer nails".
They also made the decision to record with musicians from New Orleans, so on their new disc Down In New Orleans, on the Time/Life label, they've joined forces with Allen Toussaint, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Hot 8 Brass Band, Bennie Pete, and Carl LeBlanc to present their music. While Jimmy Carter says they had to make adjustments, and learn how to work with some different styles of music, you'd never know from listening to this disc that these people hadn't been playing together for years. The combination of the Blind Boys amazing ability to harmonize and the New Orleans jazz sound of their accompanists could have been made for each other.
Right from the opening song of the disc, "Free At Last", you can hear the differences Jimmy was talking about. Long associated with the civil rights movement thanks to Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech, I've only ever heard the song performed in a slow, Bluesy style by B. B. King, but here it really swings. Everyone knows how up tempo and rocking Gospel music can be, but this was different. While Gospel usually compels you to get to your feet and clap your hands with its strong emphasis on rhythm, here it's the melody that carries the song.
It's a subtle difference, but one that's noticeable throughout the disc, as familiar songs like "Down By The Riverside" and "I'll Fly Away" are given slightly different treatments than what we are used to hearing. Perhaps it's just that it's not often you hear "I'll Fly Away" played by a brass band, as the Hot 8 Brass Band accompany The Blind Boys Of Alabama on this track, or a jazz band like Preservation Hall playing "Down By The Riverside" that makes them sound different.
Quite frankly though, I wasn't overly concerned about why the material sounded like it did, I was far too busy enjoying it. Whether it was Allen Toussaint accompanying them on "If I Could Help Somebody", or either of the other groups working with them, the music was just amazing. I don't know how long this version of The Blind Boys Of Alabama has been together, but their vocal work is as immaculate as ever. Not only do they harmonize with each other, but they also seem to manage the trick of harmonizing with the instruments playing with them. At times their voices and the instruments blend together so that the lyrics, while still discernible, become less important than the music that's being created through the combination of voice and instrument.
What they've managed to do is take the music to a place where the sound itself is inspirational and is able to carry their message of hope and faith. It's like listening to some of the great orchestral works whose very existence is a measure of the depth of feeling that inspired them. It's not something I expected to find on a CD of gospel music, although I guess it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise considering the quality of the performers on Down In New Orleans.
The Blind Boys Of Alabama have spent nearly seventy years singing messages of hope, faith and inspiration to people across the United States and around the world. When they went to New Orleans to record Down In New Orleans it was with the intent of trying to bring succor to the hearts of people who have seen their homes destroyed by storm and their hopes betrayed by politicians. While that may seem like a nearly impossible task, reserve judgment on their abilities to accomplish it until you've heard this CD. They just might make a believer out of you.