Gospel artists to pay tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois

Blind Boys of Alabama

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 4, 2002) – Spirit of the Century was an apt title for the most recent album by the Blind Boys of Alabama, because for the better part of the last century the Blind Boys have been singing with and about spirit – in their case, being a gospel group, about the spirit of Jesus.

“If you want to serve the lord, you serve him -- if not you serve the devil,” says Clarence Fountain, co-founder and singer in the group. “You take your choice. I took mine.”

The Blind Boys of Alabama will share the stage with the urban soul-gospel group the Holmes Brothers at the Mahaiwe Theatre on Sunday, February 10, at 7:30. The concert is the first in a series of shows planned by Club Helsinki to honor the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights pioneer who was born in Great Barrington 134 years ago this month.

In commemoration of Black History Month, at Sunday’s show about 30 students from the Jubilee School, an alternative community school in Philadelphia, will kick off the show with a presentation on W.E.B. Du Bois.

The students, who first came to Great Barrington last year seeking signs of Du Bois’ roots in a town that has done little to honor its native son, are involved in a year-long, in-depth study of Du Bois, who cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), edited the magazine Crisis for a quarter century, and organized the first of several Pan-African Congresses in 1919.

Students at Jubilee are writing poems, stories and illustrated biographies of Du Bois, and producing an original document on human rights modeled on a petition Du Bois presented to the League of Nations concerning the rights of people of color around the world. The year-long project, which includes producing a magazine patterned after Du Bois’s Crisis and updating Du Bois’s study of African-American life in Philadelphia, will also be the subject of a documentary film.

Also at the Mahaiwe on Sunday will be an exhibition on Du Bois on loan from the archives of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The exhibit, which will be on display in the theater’s lobby, includes a biographical overview of Du Bois’s life and achievements as well as photographs and facsimiles of significant documents about the civil rights movement.

Du Bois was born in a house on Church Street, and spent his early years at a grandfather’s farmhouse on Route 23 near the South Egremont border. When he was of school age he moved back into town, living in a rental apartment on Railroad Street. After graduating from Great Barrington High School, Du Bois attended Fisk University in Nashville. He later became the first black man to earn a doctorate at Harvard University.

Throughout his life Du Bois longed to move back to Great Barrington. Generous friends purchased the Burghardt farmstead on Route 23 and gave it to him as a 60th birthday gift. He spent a few summers there, but never lived there for any significant period of time. The house no longer stands on the site, which became a National Historic Landmark in 1979.

In his later years, frustrated with the slow pace of integration, Du Bois joined the Communist Party. A few years before his death, he moved to Ghana and renounced his American citizenship. Perennial efforts by groups to commemorate Du Bois’s local legacy with a monument or street dedication have for the most part been unsuccessful, often stymied by those who resent the leader’s leftist affiliation. Other than a marker near his Church Street birthplace, one where the Burghardt house used to stand, and one in the Mahaiwe Cemetery, where Du Bois’s first wife and their only child are buried, there is no public evidence that this world-renowned civil-rights leader, writer and educator was born and raised here.

In addition to raising the profile of Du Bois, Sunday’s event is intended to
celebrate the tradition of African-American soul- and blues-oriented gospel. Both the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Holmes Brothers are exponents of an earthy, rootsy, blues-influenced style of gospel, as much of the world as of the church.

On the Blind Boys’ latest album, which will vie for the Best Gospel Soul Album award at the upcoming Grammy Awards, they interpret songs by the likes of Tom Waits, Ben Harper and the Rolling Stones, in addition to several traditional gospel numbers, including “Amazing Grace,” “Good Religion” and “Motherless Child.”

Likewise, on the Holmes Brothers’ latest album, Speaking in Tongues the group mixes songs by Ben Harper, the O’Jays and Bob Dylan with traditional songs like “King Jesus Will Roll All Burdens Away” and original soul-gospel songs including “New Jerusalem,” “Jesus Got His Hooks in Me” and “Jesus Is the Way.”

Despite the Blind Boys’ gritty sound on Spirit of the Century – musicians include blues legends like John Hammond, David Lindley and Charlie Musselwhite -- and some of the material’s secular origins, Fountain insists that it retains its spirituality.

“Blues is not god-given,” he said. “Blues is blues. You’re singing about a man and a woman.

“Gospel always has been here,” said Fountain, who co-founded the group as a glee club at the Talladega Institute for the Blind in Alabama in 1939. “It was here before the blues, and from the blues came jazz, and from jazz came rock and roll. They all go hand in hand.”

Fountain traces the sacred/secular divide symbolized by gospel and blues back to the original choir of Christian legend.

“In heaven, the devil was one of the chief angels in the choir,” said Fountain. “He was the man who kept everything right. He led the choir.

“When we all get together in the end, then we’ll be a choir according to scriptures -- a choir that will be in heaven singing around the clock.”

Since their beginnings, the Blind Boys – formerly the Five Blind Boys of Alabama – haven’t strayed from their course as a gospel group. The Holmes Brothers, on the other hand, have always had one foot in gospel and the other in its secular cousin, soul music.

Sherman and Wendell Holmes were born and raised, aptly enough, in Christchurch, Va. As children they sang in the church choir, but they also listened to the blues of Jimmy Reed, Junior Parker and B.B. King.

The two formed a group called the Sevilles in the early 1960s, before teaming up with drummer Popsy Dixon, with whom they played in Top 40 bands until 1980, when they regrouped as the Holmes Brothers. Over the last decade, they’ve gained renown collaborating with Van Morrison and Joan Osborne and recording for Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label – the same label that released the Blind Boys’ “Spirit of the Century” album.

In spite of their commitment to gospel, the Blind Boys have been able to reach out beyond the strict confines of gospel by sharing concert bills with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Al Green, Tom Petty and most recently, the String Cheese Incident. They also got a big boost in the early 1980s when they took part in the Broadway production of “Gospel at Colonus,” an experimental retelling of Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy, “Oedipus Rex,” in the form of an African-American church service.

“Music is music,” said Fountain. “A Tom Petty audience is just like any audience that you can get under control and make them listen to you. It doesn’t make a difference. Everything we do is gospel. It might sound like the blues, but we serve the lord and we’re happy to sing gospel and make people happy.”

For ticket information call 413-528-3394.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 8, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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