Payin' Dues: The Blind Boys Of Alabama

The Blind Boys Of Alabama standing together, looking to one side.
The Blind Boys Of Alabama: Clarence, left.

June 2016 sees the reissue of The Blind Boys Of Alabama’s Spirit Of The Century and Higher Ground albums, from 2001 and 2002 respectively. The first, originally issued on the Real World label, reached a wide audience when the group’s version of Tom Waits’ Way Down In The Hole from it was used as the theme to The Wire TV series. The album also won the group their first of six Grammy Awards. Founded in 1944, they’ve witnessed many changes, but says founder Clarence Fountain, “we’ve always stayed true to the gospel”.

What are your early musical memories?

I was nine, at the Alabama Institute For The Blind in Talladega, Alabama. We went to church and there was nothing else to do but to sing gospel music. We started singing in school and also to the church congregation and it went from there. We did a local radio show in Alabama, that got us a bigger audience, then we recorded our first single in 1948 for the Vee Jay label called I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine, and that got us a bigger audience and we just kept singing.

You played in support of the 60s civil rights movement. Did you meet Dr Martin Luther King?

No, but we stayed in the same hotels. Being black, we were only able to stay in a few places and so we’d be coming down for breakfast in the mornings and he’d be sat having his breakfast at a table.

The Blind Boys Of Alabama were a part of the In Performance At The White House: A Celebration Of Music From The Civil Rights Movement.

Ill health meant I never made it, but I went to the White House in 1994 at Bill Clinton’s invite. He was nice, but you got to eat before you go to the White House, cos you won’t get offered any food while you are there.

What have been some of the high points of your career?

Recording Spirit Of The Century and getting to work with Charlie Musselwhite, who I really respect. Also covering the songs of Tom Waits on the same album, turning his blues songs into gospel ones, and winning our first Grammy award.

Finally, what do you do when you’re not singing?

I like reading, mainly westerns. My favourites are by Zane Grey, like Riders Of The Purple Sage and The Rainbow Trail.

Spirit Of The Century and Higher Ground are out now on Omnivore.