December 15, 2006
We make dozens of decisions each day. It is doubtful that we think that many of our daily decisions are of any consequence at all. Conditioned by a bombardment of choices and freedoms of all sorts, most decisions are considered to be solely up to our pleasure or whim of the moment. “Would you like this one, or that one? If it doesn’t work out, you can always exchange it for another.”
Unlike our shopping purchases, some decisions matter. Some things cannot be easily exchanged or un-done. In 1937 five students at the Talladega Blind School in Alabama started singing Gospel songs together. They were not supposed to leave the campus, but they did just that on a few occasions to sing for soldiers training at a nearby army base. The troops loved their inspirational music and these secret forays into the wider world encouraged the group to keep singing. In 1939 they became the “Five Blind Boys of Alabama” and made a decision to dedicate themselves to singing only Gospel and spiritual songs. They labored on the Gospel circuit for decades with modest rewards. In the 1950s and 60s, when many Gospel singers nurtured in the church began to defect to secular music, the Blind Boys were in the same studio with Sam Cooke. Cooke had been a Gospel singer but had turned to popular music and had reaped wealth and fame. When a producer heard the “Blind Boys” sing along with Cooke during a break, he produced his checkbook and asked them “How much?” implying that he would pay any amount for the group to sing secular songs. The leader of the group, Clarence Fountain, remembers saying: “Can’t do it.”
In the 1970s, Paul Simon, with the song “Love Me Like A Rock”, and other popular musicians, began to season their music with gospel-like sounds. However, the message of these gospel-sounding songs was decidedly secular. Gospel sounds became in vogue and many groups left their spiritual roots to back secular bands. It seemed like Gospel choirs were leaving the church and going into show business.
In the 1980s, with the group members averaging 70 years of age, “The Five Blind Boys” were asked to sing in the off Broadway musical: “The Gospel at Colonus”. The musical was award winning and it opened new venues to the “Blind Boys”. This breakthrough event was followed by five consecutive Grammy awards for the singing group.
What was different about the “Blind Boys” was that the group consistently remained true to the message of faith in Gospel music. Not only did they sing the old Gospel songs, they began recording secular songs they had changed to reflect the spiritual inspiration that motivated them. They recorded a Stevie Wonder song, but changed the lyric “lovers keep on loving” to “prayers keep on praying”.
In December I was privileged to be able to attend a “Five Blind Boys From Alabama” concert in Santa Cruz, California. The standing room only audience in the Rio Theater relished the enthusiasm, spirit, rhythm and excitement of the hard driving Gospel music the group sings. I wondered if many of those present believed the words. This group mentioned “Jesus” more times than I had ever thought the majority of Santa Cruzans, who are known for their libertine inclinations, would feel comfortable hearing. To be fair, I imagine many present were people of faith, but I suspected that many more were not.
I saw one couple raise their hands to cheer and yell in support of the music one minute, then begin passionately kissing the next. Since I was in close proximity to this expressive an affectionate couple, I could tell that one or both had been drinking hard liquor before the concert. While they enjoyed the music, I wondered if they understood the music’s message. At least on the surface, it appeared that message being sung had not impacted the immediate behavior of this couple. All the while, Jimmy Carter, one of the 80-plus- year-old lead singers, continued to give glory to God and sing to His Savior. Carter would shout, “Do I have a witness?” to the crowd. The crowd would respond with the high-pitched “Whoo Whoo” heard at rock concerts. The word “Amen” was conspicuously absent. I thought, “none of these people have been to church, and certainly not to a Gospel church”, because that is not the way church-goers give a “witness” to the saving grace of God. But the group sang their hearts out, and many enjoyed their expression of joy, talent, and enthusiasm. I wondered if those present realized the fountainhead of the Blind Boys’ passion? Birthed from their faith, forged by physical adversity and years singing in the Jim Crowe South, shaped by their commitment to remain faithful to God no matter what, the notes they sang no doubt reflected a deeper love than that of just a love for blues, rhythm and rhyme. They had decided to follow the God that loved them and their music reflected their passion.
In an interview in “Christian Music Today,”* Clarence Fountain, leader of the group, was asked: “I’d say the Blind Boys’ songs of faith have always been a great source of the gospel to those who may not have otherwise been exposed to it. Would you agree?” Fountain replied, “ I agree with that, but people have to make up their own mind when it comes to (faith). I think we bring audiences something they never felt before. That’s why we continue to sing with inspiration. Even after doing it for so long, we’re still just as excited for them to feel the Spirit of God.”
In the same interview, Fountain was asked if he had any challenges or struggles to slow him down. He answered: “I have no struggle because God makes it just right. He knows how to do it. He is the Alpha and the Omega – the Beginning and the End. Since He is all if this, surely He can straighten little old me out.”
Near the end of the concert I attended, the audience started to react in anticipation when they heard the opening, unmistakable, strains of the “House of the Rising Sun.” But instead of the rhythm and blues ballad about a New Orleans gambler, the Blind Boys sang the words to “Amazing Grace,” a song written by a repentant slave trader who found forgiveness from following Christ.
We all cannot sing like the “Blind Boys of Alabama” sing, but we all can decide to receive the love of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ for us, as they have, and we can decide to sincerely give God praise. Some decisions matter beyond this life.
*Excerpt from Copyrighted material: “Christian Music Today”, used by permission.