In September, The Blind Boys of Alabama gathered at St. Augustine’s Church in the New Orleans neighborhood of Treme, a historically African-American enclave once home to Jelly Roll Morton. St. Augustine’s has long been a community nexus for the jazz- and brass-band artists who live nearby. In traf?c, it’s still common to see bumper stickers protesting the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ threat to close it after Katrina for lack of parishioners. And it was there, at a special mass, that the Blind Boys performed “Free At Last”—the “old Negro spiritual” quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. in his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech and recorded by the Blind Boys on their new album Down In New Orleans. “Everyone knows the speech, of course,” Blind Boys manager Charles Driebe says, “but hardly anyone knows the song.”
After the mass, the Hot 8 Brass Band—who lost snare drummer Dinerral Shavers to gun?re last December—led a second-line to Congo Square, the plaza where, pre-emancipation, slaves could gather on weekends to play music and dance. The parade was rife with symbols and emotions in a city that has no shortage of either. And if any band was capable of channeling the spiritual energy of the moment, it was the Blind Boys—who, with more than 60 years of performing to their name, make the Rolling Stones look like greenhorns.
The group, which specializes in booming gospel-soul, formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. In recent years, the Blind Boys have enjoyed a new popularity on the hipster circuit—not to mention four Grammys—due to inspired collaborations with contemporary purveyors of hip-hop, rock and R&B. For their latest, Down In New Orleans, they installed themselves at New Orleans’ Piety Street Studios (where Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint recorded their 2006 Katrina-inspired masterwork The River In Reverse). For their main backing band, the Blind Boys used a New Orleans jazz combo—pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Shannon Powell—and were also joined by the Hot 8, Toussaint and the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band on several tracks.
“It was a New Orleans rhythmic concept on a Southern gospel vibe,” Torkanowsky says, adding that the songs were worked out from scratch in the studio. “We didn’t go in there knowing, but we went in believing.” Most of the tracks are traditional spirituals, spiced up with New Orleans-style brass and beats, except for “Make A Better World,” made famous by legendary New Orleans pianists James Booker and Dr. John.
“We sing songs that carry a message, and ‘Make A Better World’ carries a good message, I think,” says founding member Jimmy Carter. “Because the world needs to be better.”