Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama
The year was 2008, the place was Duke University, and there was no way I was going to miss a performance with a headline like that. Not that I knew anything about their music – the only Mavis I knew was a computer program that taught me how to type in elementary school, and I’d had even less contact with Alabamans – but that name had so much power. “Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama.” I bought two tickets and went with my friend Tiffany.
I knew going in I was going to like the show. I’m very forgiving of food and live performances. The alternative is to chew or squirm and think “I don’t like this I don’t like this I don’t like this I don’t like this…” If I don’t like it, I find what other people see in it and go from there, or I see what doesn’t work and think about it. But would Tiffany like it? I worried. I didn’t have to. She had a big smile from the start. We both had a great time. Here’s why.
The Blind Boys formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939. Over the last five years, all the founding members have retired or passed away except the current leader, who happens to be named Jimmy Carter. They’ve added reinforcements and soldiered on. The three main vocalists and the percussionist are indeed blind.
They sang their hearts out. Every song started with a different emotion, and then they’d seize it, lift it up, and articulate it until everyone was breathless. They were unapologetically Gospel, and Jimmy Carter especially brought JC to us with his passion. Their closing song, “Look Where He Brought Me From,” was radiant. We all jumped out of our seats and clapped along. But that wasn’t enough; far from it. Jimmy Carter was on fire. Assisted by a member of the group with sight, he walked all the way down into the aisle, and all the way back, leading the chorus all the while. The band powered on, belting it out minute after minute after minute. My heart settled slightly, as I thought, “It’s amazing he’s still going…Are we going to be up and clapping forever?” I remembered asking the priest in high school whether I’d get bored of eternal perfection in heaven, being so used to challenges and suffering on Earth, and I decided to appreciate this moment as long as I could: when it was gone it was gone. The band would have to go back to the less celestial aspects of touring: sleeping and eating and traveling. And the song would be in my past, not my present. Finally, they were finished. We stayed on our feet to give them their ovation.
After that barn-burner, Mavis Staples felt like a breather, but it was another great show. Her voice has some static these days, but her articulation was excellent. Her colorful backup band, especially the male vocalist (who happened to be white), was in the zone. Mavis joined the family band, the Staples Singers, when she was 11. Seven years later, in 1957, she graduated, and the family band hit the road. She’s still moving. She must know every road in the South. Her music was funky and driving, then sweet and redemptive.
The Staples were close with the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. “I Have a Dream” was 47 years ago. I’ve heard about the Civil Rights era and its songs every year of my life, but soon enough we won’t have any performers who were actually there. They certainly don’t land on these shores very often. I gave my host family a Blind Boys CD when I arrived in Japan. They played it at one of our barbecues, and my host mother enjoyed it. The opening song was “All Day Long,” but she said she heard them singing, “Oh, Nihon!” (Nihon is the Japanese name for Japan.)
I’m proud that I grew up in the country of Jazz, Rock, and Gospel. I regret the suffering that inspired that music, but some great Americans made beautiful things from it.