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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 Harper.

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.



'Atom 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?

Of course!



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 slow down?

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: www.blindboys.com