Book Review: The Blind Boys of Alabama with Preston Lauterbach “Spirit of the Century”

2024, Hachette Books

Calling itself, “an insider history of the Blind Boys of Alabama, the longest running group in American music, and the untold story of their world, written with band members and key musical colleagues, drawing from the group’s private archive,” ‘Spirit of the Century’ rounds up all surviving members of the group as contributors to the tell their own story.

It also serves to mark the ending of an era, or perhaps more accurately given the group’s longevity the passing of the torch. While everyone in and around the group gets their say, there are two key characters in the book. The last founding member and longest serving singer, Clarence Fountain, whose presence is felt on nearly every page, despite passing in 2018, The other voice we hear most clearly is Jimmy Carter. He and Fountain had worked together in The Blind Boys of both Alabama and Mississippi. The chapter that includes Fountain’s time as a solo artist and some of the fractious encounters with his former group are covered with clarity and honesty.

The core of the book are the years when The Blind Boys of Alabama appeal crossed over into wider popularity. The chapter on their appearance in ‘The Gospel at Colonus’ an African American musical version of Sophocles’ tragedy, ‘Oedipus at Colonus,’ serves as a curtain raiser for this second act of their career. Fountain and Carter are in the group and very much the driving forces. From there the book does have elements of the typical band biography on the album/tour trail. The last chapter “Crossroads” shows the group at exactly that. Fountain, and another member Ben Moore were both gone, and Carter had been saying “just one more year” for some time. Carter finally retired from the road at the age of 91 shortly after the book’s narrative ends. Longtime manager Charles Driebe also bows out but Ricky McKinnie and Joey Williams who leads the current group have clearly no intention of allowing the legacy to fall.

Preston Lauterbach has worked on several classic books including ‘The Chitlin’ Circuit,’ an excellent introduction to how and why Rock and Roll came about. His introduction has more than enough enthusiasm to push someone unfamiliar with gospel music into the book, and his appendix will make you curious enough to explore the music more. He could so easily have made this another struggle against adversity book, but instead turns it into a celebration. The Blind Boys of Alabama aren’t over, but with the founders gone it will be different, and having this book to mark that transition is exactly what the group need and deserve to highlight their greatness.

Two late period songs from a session for New York station KEXP that show the group had lost none of their fire. Soulful, bluesy, and funky, a history lesson you can dance to.


About Tim Martin 247 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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