Story and interviews by Don Wilcock
Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama team up tonight (Thursday, November 1) at the Palace Theatre in Albany for the “Spirituals to Funk” concert – a variation on the landmark “Spirituals to Swing” concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and ’39. Those original concerts were the brainchild of John Hammond, a man who was prescient in his view of music not so much as a seer but more as a doer, in that he first brought artists as iconic as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen to the public as the chief A&R (artist and repertory) man for Columbia Records.
Hammond’s idea back in 1938 was to present gospel, jazz and blues to a mixed audience in the most important concert venue in the largest city in the world. On the same bill, he had gut bucket blues people like Sonny Terry, Ida Cox and Big Bill Broonzy playing with sacred acts like the Golden Gate Quartet and big band jazz giants the Count Basie Orchestra and the Benny Goodman Sextet. Then there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer who played roaring electric guitar decades before the term “crossover” was even thought of. But that’s another story…
The two concerts were so outside-the-box in the pre-World War II United States that the only sponsors Hammond could get to sign on were the Theater Arts Committee and The New Masses, the journal of the American Communist Party.
Also in 1939, a group of five young men from the Alabama Institute of the Blind began singing together as the Happyland Jubilee Singers. Jimmy Carter is the last remaining founding member of that group that later renamed themselves the Blind Boys of Alabama. He will front that group tonight (Thursday, November 1) backed by Dr. John and his band.
“We have gone through different times in music. When this group started out, we just started out with one guitar,” says Carter. “Now, you have a little small band going. Music changes. Gospel was described as a jubilee type of music. Now, the jubilee is here, the contemporary is here.
“Even though we have collaborated and recorded with many, many people, but we have not deviated from our gospel roots. This group is still a traditional gospel singing group. A far as the music changes, that has to do with the times, so we had to change with the times also. You have to learn to sing to any culture, any kind of people. So the Blind Boys are fortunate enough to be able to sing to any culture. Everywhere we go, we’re accepted. The response has been great. This tour here with Dr. John has been very, very good, and we’re just gonna go on as long as possible.”
Dr. John grew up in a secular white environment. In the liner notes to his most recent album Locked Down, Gabe Soria describes the early life of Dr. John, a.k.a. Mac Rebennack. “He used to accompany his father around town as his pops serviced jukeboxes and record players, absorbing the rhythm of his hometown in his bones. He grew up to be a guitar-playing hustler who used to round up dope money by stuffing records down his coat in the middle of summer, a street-smart dude who rode shotgun through the midnight streets with Professor Longhair as Fess card-sharped his way up and down society’s ladder.”
Mac and Jimmy, for most of their lives, lived in different worlds. “We wouldn’t sing to white people because we wasn’t allowed to,” says Carter. “So it was kinda rough. You did a program at night, and you couldn’t eat a decent meal because you wasn’t allowed to go in certain restaurants, but as I say, we were determined. It was hard, but we had fun, too. We were never harassed by anybody. We knew our place at that time, and we stayed in our place. Other than that, it was okay. That’s about it.”
But Dr. John – who became known as the Nite Tripper in the late ’60s – knew almost as much about the sacred styles of music as he did the profane. “In the various churches, there’s so much funky music playing that it was a very popular gig once upon a time,” he says. “The other side of the coin is I don’t know how good race relations is, so to speak, but I do know the world needs more guidance on that.”
And that is what this concert tonight is all about. John Hammond’s Spirituals to Swing would be an anomaly for almost half a century to come. For years, the Blind Boys of Alabama played only in the south to African American audiences.
“That’s right. That’s correct, yeah,” says Carter. “When we finally got exposed to the main stream of people, we found out that the white audiences loved us. We could have been there all the time if we had been allowed to go there. But we couldn’t sing to you. That’s all behind us. It’s funny… now most of our audiences are white.
“No regrets. No hard feelings to anybody. We’re just glad that we’re still able to go on and able to really, really touch people.”
Like our country as a whole, these two worlds are blending.
“I feel like it’s a beautiful blend,” says Dr. John, “and I just have a lot of fun just playing with them every f***ing night. There’s nothing I could take up that would be better. It’s very beautiful for me. You know, these are the Blind Boys. It’s a very therapeutical thing. Take our trombonist Sarah Morrow. She gets very like deep into the thing just like she does with our thing. I love it when she steps in doing certain things with them. The spirit takes us. Whether it’s Jimmy, it doesn’t matter which of the cats. It doesn’t matter. All of these guys, they’re so spiritually correct.”
“I’m a very syncretic believer in both things (spiritual and religious). Some people don’t approve of that, but I’m just saying for me, that’s my way. On a lotta terminologies, people look at things very locked in. In one way it’s good if it works for you, but I know God is all – because God is on the spirit kingdom, and God is where we get the breath of life from all of the things that come through that from there. It’s like – that’s always a great blessing, and I believe in the powers of prayer. I think those are important things to do on a regular basis.”
Jimmy Carter: “It’s an honor to play with (Dr. John). We worked with Dr. John before, not this extensive, but we’ve done some shows with him. He’s a great guy. He’s a humble fellow, a nice fellow. He’s concerned about his people, and we love Dr. John. He’s a good guy to work with.”
As with any blend, there are strange anomalies. One of the songs the Blind Boys sing is Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” I can tell you how weird I felt in 1969 listening to the lyrics of the original in Long Binh, Vietnam: “Prepare yourelf/You know it’s a must/Gotta have a friend in Jesus/So you know that when you die/He’s gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky/That’s where you’re gonna go when you die/When you die and they lay you to rest/You’re gonna go to the place that’s the best.”
Another song The Blind Boys do with Dr. John on keyboards and backed by his band is “Amazing Grace.” “We have our own arrangement of it, says Carter. “It’s in the tune of ‘The House of the Rising Sun.’” Originally a song about a house of prostitution, the Animals turned it into their first rock hit about a gambling hall in 1965. Another of their songs, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was another song that seemed more in character in Vietnam. I worked nights in Army Headquarters, and I would begin my work day by going to the NCO club and listening to the various touring Filipino bands who invariably would end their sets with that song.
Yet Carter is careful to point out that the group is staying true to its roots. “I wouldn’t say it’s change. I would say more people are becoming involved with it, but gospel is gospel. Gospel will never die as long as there’s a God. It hasn’t changed. More people are just coming involved in it.”
Dr. John says flatly, “I try to write a lot of songs that’s about stuff people don’t want to talk about. I’m more of a spiritual person than a religious person. But that works for me. I can’t say what works for somebody else. That’s just (saying) too much when you have to figure, now, something is not working. You know? But it just gets into some zones…”
I said goodbye to the Nite Tripper on Halloween – a day after the full moon and two days after the worst hurricane in New York history.
“Have a great night,” I said.
And he answered, “Have a blessed night!”