Backstage With The Blind Boys of Alabama

My wife Cat and I recently went to see The Blind Boys of Alabama. The group’s lead singer, Jimmy Carter, has a voice like a mint julep infused with the rawest moonshine. (Yes, it is that Jimmy Carter: in between hammering away for Habitat for Humanity and solving the Middle East crisis, our former president is an old blind black man who fronts a gospel singing group. How he pulls this off is a mystery known only to God and Jimmy’s make-up artist.)

Being in the show’s audience was at times a tad uncomfortable, insofar as it was clear that just about no one present came into the show knowing that The Blind Boys are a gospel group. Most, it was clear, assumed they had come to see hardcore rural blues—acoustic, field holler, juke-joint type stuff. And in a real sense they did get that. But mostly what they got—what in fact they got with every single song—was pure, unabashed gospel.

Oh, no! Young, organically-inclined, ganja-friendly white people adorned with hemp-cloth shoulder bags and wearing sandals, macrame-berets, and yoga pants having Christian songs sung at them!

Not good. Not what they showed up for. Expected low-down funky blues. Got hands-up joy in the pews.

When the word “Jesus” first came roaring from Jimmy’s reedy, bourbon-cured vocal chords, I could feel people around us sort of freeze in mid-groove. It was like a record had skipped; for a split second it threw everyone off the rhythm of their happy rasta-hop. Makes sense. If I went to see a gospel group, and they started singin’ about pimpin’ and robbin’ jewelry stores, I, too, would get a stammer in my step.

But everybody got right back into it. You could tell they thought they’d probably just misheard the word “Jesus,”—or that that word didn’t really have much if anything to do with the song.

Then Jimmy very distinctly sang the word “Jesus” again.

People quit committing so much to the physical expressions of their pleasure, and started listening more. I could see all the people around me wondering what the heck was going on.

Was this some kind of … Christian show?!

Four songs into the set, the hemp crowd was looking downright disgruntled; whereas the previously clandestine Christians in the crowd were now waving their hands in the air like they were at an old-time travelin’ tent revival. In no time, they had unexpectedly gone from being the old and square ones, to being the hip ones!

Whoo-hoo!

Seven songs into it, nobody cared who was old, or who was hip, or who was Christian, or who wasn’t: All any of us knew was that we were listening to music as rip-roaringly, foot-stompingly, soul-rattlingly fine as music gets. No one resisted the gospel that night.

I believe some folks were converted that night.

After the show, Cat and I—who throughout the show had demonstrated that we were Major Fans—were invited backstage to meet the Blind Boys.

“Now remember,” the group’s manager warned us, “you can’t just stand around and smile. You gotta go right up to ‘em, touch ‘em. They’re blind.”

“Cool,” I said. “Finally, it’s proper for me to touch people I don’t know.” Cat, sensing I’d probably say something just like that, was already headed back stage.

“Wait up!” I said, waving goodbye to the manager. I totally saw her pick up her pace. “Don’t touch anyone without me!” I hollered. She practically started jogging.

Like most backstage areas, this one was pretty dismal: couple of couches, a mini-fridge, a table holding a little spread of cold cuts, chips, veggies, dip. Nothing you wouldn’t find at a frat party.

I saw Jimmy Carter sitting alone on one side of one of the couches, his folded hands in his lap. He was still wearing the highly stylin’ seersucker suit he’d performed in. I sat down beside him.

“Can you tell I’m here?” I said.

“Not only that,” he said, “I can tell you need to go on a diet. Unless you’re about seven-foot eight, you obvious lard-ass.”

Nah. What really happened is that I put my hand on Mr. Carter’s arm, and thanked him for bringing us all a little closer to God that night. Then we chatted for a little bit. He was just as polite and good-natured as I’m sure I would be if I’d been raised better—and in a whole other, gentler time.

Basically, I went around the room to each one of the guys, and thanked them, and chatted with them a little about the quality of what they do. Cat did the same.

Worked for them. Definitely worked for us.

 

 

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter. If you shop at Amazon, help support John by entering the site through this link right here--Amazon will then send John 3-4% of the cost of anything you buy before exiting the site again.

 

  • http://ingridspeak.wordpress.com Ingrid

    My parents love the Blind Boys. When I say love I mean sho nuff deep down in their sanctified soul love 'em! I am positive you had an excellent time. I heard them once when i was younger and I must admit thier appeal was lost on me because at the time Gospel was having a mid life crisis and there were people like the Winans and a very young Kirk Franklin who had my attention. As I have gotten older I have learned to appreciate the timbre in their old-timey, bluesy vocal cords. I am glad you enjoyed yourself.

    Just a curious question. Feel free to boycott answering. But were there any black people there? The reason I ask is because often times we are terrible about supporting this genre of music . Be it blues or traditional gospel we don't show up in the supportive numbers. I'm glad when artists get exposure to a wider audience, but I am slightly dismayed when their core audience stops buying tickets.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    KIRK FRANKLIN! I loooooove his "Stomp." What a song!!

    I only saw one black couple at BBA, in their 50's, sitting quietly at the tables that run alongside the main audience area. It was 70% whites age 20-30, and 30 percent middle-aged hippie whites.

    But you know how that goes. You go to a blues concert, it's all white people. Reggae concert, all white people. ZZ Top concert, no white people in their trailers for 100 miles around.

    I'm kidding with that last joke, or course. Not all white people who live in trailers like ZZ Top. Some of them like Styx.

    My experience is that the most integrated audiences are at jazz shows. Even SMOOTH JAZZ shows, which always amazes me, since to me "smooth jazz" is like, "flat skiing" : Why bother?

    Oh, and zydeco. You always get a pretty nicely mixed crowd with zydeco. Both black and white people like to gather in front of a zydeco band, and, together, try to figure out how the freak to DANCE to it.

  • http://ricbooth.wordpress.com ric booth

    Wow, I learned something new this morning. Thanks John.

  • http://www.churchpublishing.org Lucas

    Look at Mr. Big Time, with the backstage access.

    Same audience trend with the dreaded "progressive" hip-hop. Seeing the Roots or Gil Scott-Heron and it might as well be a messenger bag/ironic (but not too ironic) t-shirt convention.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Too extremely well put, Lucas. As ever, you're the Turn of Phrase genius.

    And hey, man. I know I get backstage at whatever show I care to. But just remember: I put on my pants the same as you or anyone else. With the help of mute, breathlessly dedicated manservant named Hans.

    Actually, the only reason we ended up backstage at this show was because we stuck around a bit after the show to A. Avoid the crush at the door/parking lot, and B. To thank the group's manager for the wonderful show. So we were talking to their manager/handler guy, and he goes, "Wanna meet the guys?" Next thing you know, we're hob-nobbin' with the Blind Boy set!

  • http://www.whitenoisemetal.com Brian Shields

    There has got to be a way to turn this into a dispute over the Bible and keep up my streak of pissing off my fellow atheists…

    Okay, guess not. I did see the BBA a few years ago opening for Peter Gabriel. PG was awful (to me). BBA were a lot of fun.

    Even if I am longhaired headbanger (as opposed to hippie) stoner…

  • http://www.wonderfulordinarylife.wordpress.com anita

    I LOVED Kirk Franklin's God's Property CD but the last couple collections have been a disappointment IMHO. When I want to get my pathetic little Anglo grove on it's Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir or yes, I'm still listening to the man, Andre Crouch. When i start dancing to the tunes (something I only do when the house is empty, blinds pulled, and doors locked and alarmed), I like to close my eyes and imagine I'm moving in some fashion that looks more like dance than a full-blown body seizure. I suspect I'm only fooling my sorry self.

  • http://ingridspeak.wordpress.com Ingrid

    Well… Now see what happens when I step away from my computer for 12 hours. I miss all the fun comments. Thanks John, I figured as much. We tend to be absent from events like that which is sad considering we want to whine and complain about losing our cultural heritage. Go figure. *SIGH*

    @ Anita… it's cool you don't appreciate Kirks more recent endeavors. The purpose of his brand of Gospel is to reach a young mostly urban (read black) hip hop crowd who are less likely to get their dose of Jesus from the church house. My daughter absolutely LOVES Kirk Franklin, Ty Tribbett, KiKi Sheard, Mary Mary and a few other Gospel Contemporary Artists.

    I am a Fred Hammond Israel Houghton kinda girl myself, but Kirk still gets me out of my seat for a mini praise session. Open your curtains girl! Let the sun shine in! Gospel music has that effect on mostly all of us!

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Anita: I can't believe how funny you are. You're EXTREMELY HILARIOUS!! And you're right about Franklin's post-Stomp stuff: Yawnsville. Without G. Clinton's ever-perfect funk backing him up, he kind of goes nowhere.

    Then again, I really have no idea what Franklin's done lately. I just didn't like the few cuts of it I heard. But I heard so little of it. So I'll shut up now.

    Ingrid: Way to encourage people to open their blinds. It drives me crazy how many people don't. I spent good money for my night goggles, and don't get to use them nearly as often as I'd planned.

  • Dan Harrell

    John,

    You are too funny for words. I have several of their CD's and enjoy all of them on my Ipod. It's a trip to be listening to ZZ Top or Merle Haggard and have something from the Blind Boys of Alabama come on and set me straight again.

  • http://www.youtube.com/morsec0de Morse

    I've seen the Blind Boys on TV, and they're awesome! Who cares what they're singing about? Good music is good music, and good lyrics are good lyrics, regardless of the story it may be telling.

    The day I can't listen to something from the Blind Boys or check out a production of Jesus Christ Superstar is the day I become worm food.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Dan: Great little story/moment. Thanks for sharing it. Wonderful.

    Morse:Yeah, that's the right attitude, for sure. Before I was a Christian, I used to like gospel music exactly the same as I do now, which is to say not terribly much. But when it was good, it was awesome–same as now. And JCS IS a great show, no matter what. I saw the traveling Broadway production of it when I was in high school, and just about died it was so great.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    I always get Kirk Cameron confused with Charlie McCarthy. But that's probably just me.

  • http://samwrites2.wordpress.com samwrites2

    John,

    May I mention Mahalia Jackson? She made it "Great Gettin' Up in the Mornin'" as a kid.

    Mom sang so.

    Wish I'd known about the Blind Boys – heard of them in passing but never checked them out.

    Thanks for the review.

    -Sam

  • http://skerrib.blogspot.com skerrib

    I’m a little behind I guess…I’m not familiar with Kirk Franklin. I keep thinking of Kirk Cameron. Totally different, I’m sure.

  • http://www.wonderfulordinarylife.wordpress.com anita

    @ Anita… it’s cool you don’t appreciate Kirks more recent endeavors. The purpose of his brand of Gospel is to reach a young mostly urban (read black) hip hop crowd who are less likely to get their dose of Jesus from the church house. My daughter absolutely LOVES Kirk Franklin, Ty Tribbett, KiKi Sheard, Mary Mary and a few other Gospel Contemporary Artists.

    So Ingrid, what I hear you saying, and oh please, correct me if I'm wrong, is that you've ruled out the possibility that I'm young, urban, and hip hop. So okay, I might be white as the Pillsbury Dough Boy (and just as squishy soft), but really, when you consider the mighty tubeworm (formally known as Lamellibrachia.) which has a life-span of 170 to 250 years, my 51 years is barely scrapping adolescence. As to hip hop, I've been hip-hopping ever since I took a nasty fall off my front porch in the summer of 2003. Oh wait. That's hip-popping. Nevermind.

  • http://www.wonderfulordinarylife.wordpress.com anita

    Anita: I can’t believe how funny you are. You’re EXTREMELY HILARIOUS!!

    And you might well take note that I usually post here late at night. What that all means is you’re getting the tired-giddy-silly-me as opposed to the tired-cranky-grumpy-pants-me which follows shortly after. Thank your lucky stars and the God who tossed them that “Suddenly Christian” is only 3/4 of the way down in my RSS Feeds. Have pity on those who fall below you. It’s not pretty.


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