Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) has recently begun airing a new program launched by National Public Radio (NPR). It’s called 1A and its host is Joshua Johnson. Joshua has eclectic tastes in both subject matter and guests, so I always benefit from hearing bits and pieces as I drive around doing errands on a given morning. This past week, he had one of the surviving original Blind Boys of Alabama as his main guest. Listening to him set me off on a fascinating chain of thought. One of Joshua’s questions was about what it was like for the black singers to star in a highly successful Broadway production that came to Minneapolis and played to large and enthusiastic audiences at the Guthrie Theatre in its original location adjacent to the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis. It was called “Gospel at Colonus” and told the story of Oedipus, King of Thebes, who blinded himself after learning that he had killed his father and married his mother. After the program was over, I made an obvious connection between these Gospel singers and a wonderful discussion group I host in my living room. This group of 10-12 adults formed to read Shakespeare, but when they had explored virtually every word the Bard wrote, refused to disband. Instead, they asked me if I’d facilitate discussions of Greek drama. Because I didn’t want to stop listening to them, I agreed, though it had been many decades since I’d given serious thought to the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, or Aristophanes. We just ended our fall set of evenings by have two intense discussions of Sophocles’ first play, “Oedipus the King.” Now, I was getting ready to talk about the second one, “Oedipus at Kolonus.”
Of course, I did some on-line research about the “Gospel at Colonus” and sent links to the study group, reminding them that some of them might have seen the local staging in 1987. All that afternoon last week, I kept being back in that audience of overwhelmingly white Minneapolitans as we listened spell-bound to four blind black men circulate the part of Oedipus and sing the iconic tragedy to rousing Gospel melodies. I had gotten tickets because I grew up in Alabama from which I fled the minute that was possible. Most of the time, I felt some mixture of shame, embarrassment, and anger about how my home state was behaving around race, gender, or sexual orientation. But I could feel pride about being from the same place as an internationally recognized singing group–and, of course, I’d grown up hearing Gospel music in my kitchen sung by the “Negro maid” who worked in our home and on 45 RPM records bought against my mother’s better judgment since such music wasn’t “classical.” I can shut my eyes and see five tall, lean black men in simple suits walk out onto the Guthrie stage to a wildly cheering audience. They walked in a line with a leader followed by the other three who placed their left hands on the shoulder in front of them to make their way onto the stage: Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Eric (Ricky) McKinnie, and Paul Beasley. As they stood and told us the agonies felt by an ancient Greek blind man who refused not to know his identity, I kept time with the music and cried.
This group had met as children when they were students at a place called the Alabama Institute for the Blind Negro in Talladega, Alabama. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, I was told a little about this school in a history course. The Institute was founded in 1858 by a young medical doctor who wanted a place for his deaf brother to go so he could become educated. The first “class” had two boys in it but grew to 22 by the end of its first year. Today, operating under the new name of Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB), the school has eight regional centers in addition to the original campus in Talladega and teaches more than 22,000 people of all ages (from toddlers to seniors) who are deaf or blind or multi-disabled. The five early students began singing as a chorus in the school, performing at assemblies there but quickly broadening their sights to include local black churches who welcomed them with loving arms. Eventually some white man in the music business heard them and met with them with a proposal to cut a single record. This record sold well to both black and white people, though the group was not invited to sing “live” before any white audiences for some time.
In the seven decades in which the Blind Boys of Alabama have performed stirring gospel music here and in many other countries, they have amassed fived Grammy’s and won the hearts of thousands of people from all walks of life. Only two of the original group still sings–Clarence Fountain (87) and Jimmy Carter (85). (The other founders are Johnny Fields, Olice Thomas, and Val Bozman Traylor). As Joshua Johnson talked with Clarence, he asked him to trace the path from being unable to perform in white venues to where the group is today. It’s clear from the words spoken and the timbre of his voice, that Clarence Fountain has made peace with just about everything wrong with American racial attitudes and policies. But he also refuses to gloss over history, so when Johnson asked him what it was like to be shut out of white performance spaces, the reply was “Well, it seems like a lot of white people liked our music–they just wouldn’t let us come sing it for them.” This was accompanied by a wry verbal “smile” that made its ironic point just fine. The last question from the 1A host had to do with what Clarence Fountain might say about how the Blind Boys were able to break through engrained prejudice and bigotry against black artists. He was quiet for a moment before saying something I’ve typed out and put on my refrigerator: “What comes from the heart reaches the heart.”
So my walk-about through my long knowledge and appreciation of these consummate musicians has taken me to this very present moment when so many people seem incapable of listening to anyone who doesn’t exactly mirror our own attitudes and beliefs. Surely Clarence has given me a little mantra I can try to hone as I cope with the latest hurtful and destructive policy emanating from the White House in Washington D.C. I can try to speak from my heart and hope that what I say can reach someone else’s. And, much harder, I can try to hear what someone else says if they tell me it emanates from their heart and not from some spoon-fed sloganeer or cowardly politician. And on February 22nd, when the study group convenes to talk about how Sophocles wrote a second play in which the isolated and despondent old king is redeemed, I will include the five black men in our circle because they belong there most assuredly.