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July 2006. Interview by Rick Webb, Photos by Andy Hall
It's a strange business, doing this website... Having spent my
impressionable years steeping myself in a culture that was a continent
and at least a couple of generations away from me, the blues finally taught
me that it's not where you're from but where you're at that counts.
Fast forward a few years and here I am sitting in a Camden hotel room
with a man from a time and place that, whilst vividly conjured through
the music and culture that I absorbed - and compelling in its appeal -
always felt like it was separated from me through time and geography,
with only an abstract connection to my now.
Clarence Fountain met the other founder members of the Blind Boys
of Alabama, George Scott and Jimmy Carter,
at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1936. They formed a singing
group in 1939 and spent the next 40 or so years working the traditional
gospel circuit in America.
In the 80s
they began to have crossover success which has continued into the 21st
century, involving collaborations with a wide range of artists including
Lou Reed, Ibrahim Ferrer, Solomon Burke and Ben
The latest in a line of critically acclaimed albums, 2005's 'Atom Bomb'
includes a version of the Fatboy Slim/Macy Gray tune
"Demons," featuring rapper Gift of Gab from
Blackalicious, while Los Lobos guitarist
David Hidalgo and blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite
feature on several tracks.
George Scott died shortly after the album's release,
but the band have kept performing and the album went on to win multiple
Grammy awards and critical acclaim.
I met Clarence the afternoon before their show at the Jazz Cafe (read
our review of the gig here).
Although there was a gulf - cultural, generational, life experience, faith
- between us, as he himself said, "people are people, all over the
world" and it was interesting, and, I guess, a privilege, to make
a connection with someone from a world like his.
Bomb' sounds really good... It stands as a good tribute to George. Was
it an easy decision for the rest of you to keep going after his passing?
Well, you know, you have to do what you have to do, and I think that's
what he would have wanted. It's a hard thing to say "Well, we just
quit!" so we just tried to move on.
How have you had to adapt to his not being there?
Well, you have to work around it... But when you've got guys that can
sing, it's not too complicated
So you've got some new guys now - you used to be the five, now
there's six, or is it seven?
There's seven of that sing and play - everybody who comes in have to
be able to sing and play, or play and sing!
For a lot of people I guess there's not too much distinction between
Blues and Gospel, but there was a time, in the past when the two things
were a lot more separated then they are now?
Well you know, I always say that Gospel and the Blues and Jazz go hand
in hand because all of 'em came about the same way... Gospel was here
before we got here and it'll be here when we're gone!
And do you think that's because there's a universal truth to it?
Well, look at it like this, when the devil was in heaven, God kicked him
out because he didn't want to conduct the choir! So when you're talking
about gospel, it always has been, and it always will be. Now the blues
came along because that's the side of the devil that shows up and if you
'aint singing about the lord, well you 'aint singing about nothing. A
woman is here today and gone tomorrow but God is here forever. A woman
is just here for a season.
So the blues is still the devil's music then?
I really liked Charlie Musselwhite's playing on the album - he
played the same place as you are tonight recently and was fantastic...
You know, musicians, they're very vulnerable to playing Gospel! If you
can play the blues, you can play gospel... The melody doesn't change too
much, it's the words that change. The blues, you're singing to your woman,
with gospel we're singing about the lord. There's your difference, and
I think that, to be precise, people who sing about their woman, or a woman
who sings about her man, hey, that has no connection to who we're singing
about. We're singing about God, singing about Jesus, so there's your difference.
And for you I guess that hasn't changed?
Nope, been there, ever since... And it'll still be here when I'm gone.
I recent years you've been incorporating more contemporary styles,
but you clearly are still able to find the gospel in new styles of music
and new ways of expressing it?
Well, when it all boils down, it's who you're talking about. Are you talking
about God, or a you talking about the devil?
So this new record has won Grammys and other awards. Do you think
it's been your most successful so far?
Well, the first one - 'Spirit of the Century' that was our first Grammy
winner, and I think that might have been the best one, but who am I to
say! This one's won four Grammys so it must mean something to somebody,
and I think all of them, they're quite nice!
You seem to be going from strength to strength... No plans to
Not yet! But you never know...
These days you're playing all over, do you find your reception
varies depending on where you are?
Same thing... People are people, all over the world. If you can get people
to listen to you, which is not complicated for us, we know we can get
over, because we know how to handle an audience. We know what to do, what
to say, when to say it, when not to say it, so that makes the difference.
You guys have been doing it a long time... Did you ever think
you might be somewhere like this when you started back in 1937? What was
your ambition then?
Just to get out and sing and hope something good'll happen. And it did.
You got to understand, that God doesn't work when you want him to. He
works in his own time, with his own time limits. He doesn't come when
you want him to come he comes when he gets ready. So to be successful
you have to stick with what you do, and you might be a success, and we
did, and we are successful.
You still seem to be interested in doing new things... You've
obviously still got a passion for doing it?
Of course! If I didn't I'd be home sitting out... I think I was born to
do what I was doing, and because of my faith I hope that we can help somebody
along the way. That's our ambition.
More information on Clarence and The blind Boys of Alabama on their website: