As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, some of us are still in lockdown, some are beginning to see an easing of restrictions, but all of us can look forward to a near future significantly different to what we’re used to.
So, we’ve been choosing a few songs to reflect on, maybe to lift our spirits a bit as things progress.
This week’s song is Jessie Mae Hemphill’s – Lord, Help the Poor And Needy, first released in 1990, and then covered by Cat Power, Tom Jones and Shemekia Copeland.
Lord Help the Poor and needy
In this land
Oh Lord Help the Poor and needy
In this land.
It’s a good reminder of the suffering that the coronavirus has caused. Some of us have lost loved ones, some of us may have been ill, some of us have been hit financially.
But the people hit worst have been those living in poverty, both on our own doorsteps, but especially in the developing world.
I think of India, where my wife works, helping desperately poor children. Here millions of people make their homes in slum communities, living cheek by jowl, with families crowded into small shacks, and they have no possibility of social distancing.
Migrant labourer, his face contorted with anguish as he sits on the roadside in Delhi speaking to his wife about their sick baby boy,
And poor people who work in the homes of the wealthy now have no means of earning money – we’ve had first hand reports of people on the brink of starvation and who are much more concerned about that than catching the virus. And there are millions of migrant workers who suddenly lost their jobs because of the lockdown who have been stranded, penniless, with no shelter and no way of getting home. (Check out this Guardian story)
The same desperate picture is repeated in many other parts of the world. For many of us, sheltering during the lockdown has been, let’s face it, no real hardship. We’ve decent homes, have plenty to eat, and are spoilt for choice for entertainment. We can manage.
Yet still you hear people grumbling about their situation. Conspiracy theories are rife, and if only we could get back to the Mall, we could put our dreadfully restricted lockdown lives behind us. (Check out this disturbing piece from the Washington Post).
Compared with the real suffering out there, most of us, I guess are OK. But Jesse Mae Hemphill’s song reminds us of the solidarity we share together, rich and poor:
Lord help the human race
‘Cause we all die together
And we face the morning sun.
In the end we all face the same enemy. We’re all members of the human race, so we need to stand with each other, particularly in these difficult times.
There are plenty of ways to make a contribution. Here’s one:
Saphara Covid-19 response – Help us to help the most vulnerable.
Jimmy Carter is the oldest member of the Blind Boys of Alabama, five-time Grammy winners and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winners. He sang with the original group, including Clarence Fountain back in the 1940s when they were at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, but was too young to go touring with them at the beginning. After singing with the Dixieland Blind Boys and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, he eventually officially joined The Blind Boys of Alabama and has been singing with them for forty years.
From the 1980s on, The Blind Boys were able to widen their audience beyond just the black community and have enjoyed tremendous success. After their 2000 Spirit of the Century album which mixed traditional church material with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, and which won the first of their Grammy Awards, the group has gone on to stellar success, becoming living legends in the world of gospel and roots music. In many ways, they have defined 21st century gospel.
Over the past 20 years, the Blind Boys of Alabama have worked with the likes of Ben Harper, Robert Randolph, Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal, Ruthie Foster, Bon Iver, Paul Thorn and Marc Cohn. The list goes on. Everybody, it seems, wants to perform and record with them.
Rolling Stone Magazine has called the Blind Boys of Alabama “gospel titans” and The New Yorker simply said they were “legendary.” Few would disagree.
I got the opportunity to chat to Jimmy Carter aka The Jimster for Down at the Crossroads. It was an incredible privilege to talk to a man who has gone through as much as he has, has achieved so much and is one of the most positive, cheerful people you could meet.
I asked him first of all about the Blind Boys’ 2017 album Almost Home, which was originally released by Amazon, but is now being made available to all digital music platforms for the first time in a couple of months’ time. It’s a wonderful album of mostly original songs which chronicle the lives of Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter. The song-writing (by the likes of the North Mississippi Allstars, Phil Cook, John Leventhal, Marc Cohn, and Ruthie Foster) is superb, the arrangements terrific and the Blind Boys’ singing characteristically wonderful. It’s an album I return to again and again.
Jimmy told me that the album is about the life he and Clarence had growing up. “Yes,” he said, “it talks about the early times of the Blind Boys. It talks about how we went to school and all that. It’s kinda like a little scene of history, you know.”
Jimmy went on to talk about Let My Mother Live, an incredibly moving and very personal song.
“Yeah, that’s a song that came straight from me. When I went to school, I was only seven years old, and I was blind. So, you can picture a seven-year old boy put in a school where he’d never been before; he knows nobody there. And I used to pray every night, oh God, let my mother live till I get through this. And he let her live until she got a hundred and three years old!
He did that for me and that’s why I love God. Everybody got their own opinion about him, but for me, I’m gonna serve him till I die.”
I asked Jimmy to tell me a bit about what he remembered about growing up as a boy in Alabama. He told me,
“When I went to school, it wasn’t a school that you’d come home every day from. We had to stay there for nine months at a time. We went to school in September and only came home in May, apart from the Christmas holidays.” It was here Jimmy first started singing in choirs.
“Yeah, I went up there and I met all the rest of the Blind Boys, and we started singing together. We had a choir, and a male chorus and we had a quartet. And the rest of it is history, my friend!”
I wondered about his visual impairment and how that has affected him and his music over the years. Jimmy was more concerned to talk about his calling to sing for the Lord.
“Well, you know,” he said, “when we started out, we didn’t sing because we wanted to be well known or famous. We weren’t thinking about that; all we wanted to do was to get out there and sing and tell the world about Jesus Christ. We weren’t thinking about no accolades or nothing like that. Because that’s what God wanted us to do.
“So, we have been blessed, we won five Grammys, we won a national Achievement Award, and God’s been good to us.”
The first song on Almost Home is the joyous Stay On the Gospel Side – “I started singing for the Lord and I ain’t finished yet.” Despite many offers to cross over and record secular songs, The Blind Boys have remained true all these years to their original calling.
“That’s right! There were a lot of them that did not stay on the gospel side. But we did. Because when we started out, we promised the Lord that we would stay on the gospel side, no matter what. And we did that. Although it gets hard sometimes, but, you know, God takes care of his own. We’re alright.”
I said to Jimmy, “Well, tell me this, when you talk about gospel music, some people think gospel music is just all about the music, but in your gospel music, it’s about the message as well, isn’t it?”
Jimmy agreed. “We have a message. Gospel is not just music, it also has a message. Somebody might say, tell me, what is gospel? When they ask me that, I say that gospel is the good news of God. That’s what gospel is.”
Jimmy Carter comes across as an incredibly positive person. My chat with him was punctuated with frequent chuckles and smiles I could hear over the phone. He told me:
“Yeah, well, you know, I’ve had my difficulties, I’ve had my setbacks, I’ve been taken advantage of at times, But it takes all of that for us to go through what we need to go through. People say, you aren’t doing anything but singing, but they just don’t know what we have to go through. We love what we do, that’s what keeps us going so much, because when you love what you do, it keeps you motivated. But it’s not easy, we have to go through a lot of difficulties.
“But by the grace of God, we’ve gone through that, and we’re still going through that, and we’re gonna stick it out until the end!”
What a fantastic attitude. I then wondered about what keeps Jimmy going, what it is about performing that has enabled him to keep on well past the time that a lot of artists might have stopped.
“I just love to go out on that stage and hear the audience respond to the Blind Boys. We go out there and say, well here we are, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and I say, I hope that we can say something or sing something that will lift you up and make you feel good. When you come to a concert of the Blind Boys, we don’t like for you to go the same way you came. We want to give you a message. When you leave us, we want you to feel differently about life.”
Despite his age and his visual impairment, Jimmy Carter frequently comes off the stage during concerts and delights audience by coming to sing right down amongst them. “Oh, I love to do that!” he said laughing.
I asked him about the Blind Boys being invited on several occasions to the White House. “Three times!” Jimmy said proudly. And what was it like singing for President Obama?
“Well, it was kinda special because he was a black president and I thought I would never see that in my lifetime. But I’ve seen it, and I’m grateful for that. We’ve sung for President Obama, for President Clinton and President Bush, and all three of them were extremely nice to us.”
The band played Free At Last at the White House on February 9, 2010.
That made me ask about his experience of the many changes in race relations in America. The Blind Boys of Alabama toured throughout the South during the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 1950s and were a part of the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement. And on Almost Home, they cover the North Mississippi Allstars’ Pray for Peace, which laments the changes which still need to come in the United States: “I think our grandmother would be heartbroken / To see their children’s children right back where we started.”
Jimmy said, “You know, when we started out, the South was segregated and we weren’t allowed to sing for nobody but our people. We did not know that the white people wanted the Blind Boys before we got over there. We just wasn’t allowed to give it to them. But they loved our music, and as time went on, and we got a chance to give it to them, they accepted it, they’re still accepting it, and everywhere we go we have people who come up and tell us how they have enjoyed our performances. And that’s what we like to hear!”
I just had to ask him about Amazing Grace, which the Blind Boys sign to the tune of House of the Rising Sun. I’d heard it was his favourite song.
“Yes it is. We sing that song every night. The reason why it’s my favourite song is, if it wasn’t for His amazing grace, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
So how much longer does Jimmy Carter intend to keep on singing for the Lord?
“Oh, well, it won’t be too much longer, because I’m no spring chicken [laughs]. I’m gonna have to think about retiring pretty soon! But there are two or three things I wanna do before I step down!”
He then proceeded to tell me how he intended to come back to Ireland to sing for us. Sing on Jimmy Carter, we’ve loved everything the Blind Boys of Alabama have done, and we never want you to stop.
As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, we’re choosing a few songs to reflect on, maybe to lift our spirits a bit as we go through it.
This week’s song is B B King’s There Must Be A Better World Somewhere. It was on the album of the same name, B B’s twenty seventh studio album released in 1981, and for which he won a Grammy.
Like a lot of blues songs, it bemoans the way things are, the woman who’s breaking hearts, but looks hopefully toward a better future.
Some of us are merely inconvenienced by the lockdowns we’re experiencing – none of our family are sick, we’ve got enough to eat, to drink and to entertain ourselves with – and, really, so what if our movement is curtailed a bit for a while? Others of us have been sick or have lost loved ones. Some of us have lost jobs and have been hit financially. And many people around the world are quite literally starving because of the necessary lockdowns. For a lot of people, it’s been a tough time.
B B’s song reminds us of the old Persian adage: This too will pass. Hang on in there. (And if you can, reach out to someone who needs some help).
If it ain’t here, maybe in the year after
Instead of tears, I’ll learn all about laughter
Meanwhile, I’m stuck out here, Lord knows it just ain’t fair
But I know, yes, I know that there must be a better world somewhere
Fabrizio Poggi is one of Europe’s finest exponents of the blues. Fabrizio has recorded over twenty albums and has shared stages with numerous top blues artists including The Blind Boys of Alabama, Eric Bibb Sonny Landreth, Ruthie Foster and John Hammond. He’s the author of four books on the blues and was nominated for a Grammy a couple of years ago, along with Guy Davis, for their Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee tribute album. He also has a Hohner Lifetime Award, and has been twice a Blues Music Awards nominee.
Fabrizio and his wife, Angelina live in the north of Italy, just south of Milan, where they’ve been sheltering over the past couple of months as Italy as suffered under the onslaught of Coronavirus.
On the 20th February, Italy’s “patient 1,” the first case of domestic transmission of the virus was confirmed and it has gone on to kill nearly 29,000 people. Italy became the first country to enforce a nationwide lockdown in early March, but the country still suffered terribly, with hospitals overwhelmed and the virus spreading to all parts of the country.
After almost two months under lockdown, the longest so far of any European country, Italy is now set to begin slowly easing restrictions. But the economic forecast for the country is bleak, with experts predicting a crisis not seen in decades. And in Italy’s poorer south,Living in people have been running out of food and money, with the Red Cross delivering food parcels.
A few days into lockdown, we saw images of people across Italy singing and playing music from their balconies as they came together to say: “Andrà tutto bene” (Everything will be all right). But the devastation of the virus has changed that and people are saying “Everything will not be all right.”
Down at the Crossroads got the opportunity to talk to Fabrizio and Angelina in their home in north Italy to find out what’s its been like living in Italy these past couple of months, how they’ve been coping and about the music Fabrizio’s been sending out to encourage people.
Gary: How are you and Angelina and your families? You’re living just south of Milan, in the north of Italy, which has been in the thick of the coronavirus outbreak for the past few months. What has it been like for you and Angelina?
Fabrizio: We are fine for now, so far. We have survived through a lot of bad things. We try to go on.
It’s very tough, we are mostly inside all day long. We have the opportunity to communicate with people through technology, but it’s hard. Most of the people we know are sick and we lost many friends.
Angelina: It is a tough time, we lost friends, people we know. We lost a very dear, deep friend who was also our doctor. Her name was Patricia, and it was very, very sad for us. She was always helping people, she was on the front line, and she died giving her life to people. Now we are not in the worst part. But it is still sad, when you go out to the supermarket, the few times you can go, and I can’t wait to come back home.
I only have some relatives, and I’m happy for that, because my parents were very old and I can’t imagine…and Fabrizio’s mother is very old, but fortunately, she’s safe. And we are happy for that.
Fabrizio: People know nothing about the future, which is also tragic, because we can’t see a real future which is in these days why I keep on playing and trying to bring a little light to people. Everything seems very dark.
Gary: What’s the situation in Italy right now? I gather things are a little better.
Fabrizio: Well it is hard to say, because the information…sometimes it’s a real mess up. One day optimistic, one day negative. The terrible thing about this virus is that we don’t know much about it. It’s hard to trust information because you don’t know who has control. So, people are sad about this.
Gary: We saw the videos of people trying to keep their spirits up singing from balcony to balcony. That was incredible.
Fabrizio: Yes, we were all over the news a lot. But probably not so many people were actually singing from balconies! From what we saw on the TV, it seemed like everybody in Italy was on their balcony singing! But that was just the media! We are not so happy as we appear.
Gary: You’ve been posting some nice videos of you singing and playing your harmonica, which have been very touching. How important do you think music can be at a time like this?
Fabrizio: Music is always important. The story of African-American music is that it was music that was born to uplift. Spirituals, blues are two sides of the same coin. Music brings people out of the tunnel, to believe, to hope for a better future.
And I want to try to play that kind of music for the people, because of the meaning inside the songs. So, playing Precious Lord or Amazing Grace or I Want Jesus to Walk With Me, is me trying to reach other people’s souls.
Gary: Some of the songs you’ve been posting are spirituals or hymns, like Amazing Grace. Is faith important right now, Fabrizio?
Fabrizio: Yes, I think that these songs contains a real message. They say, I’ve been there before you when there was no hope, just desperation – take my hand and I will walk with you gives some hope, some light, some hope for a better life some day.
Guy Davis, Katleen Scheir from Belgium and I have just recorded a version of We Shall Overcome. And we’re trying to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders.
Angelina: We choose We Shall Overcome because it has a very important message and we connected Italy, Belgium and the United States. It says that music has no borders. We had borders before the virus and now we have more borders because we have to stay at home. But music can go everywhere, can help people everywhere, all over the world. People are maybe not in the same country, don’t speak the same language, are different – but when they sing and play, they are the same.
Gary: Wonderful. Tell us about some of the music you’ve been listening to over the past couple of months – what has helped?
Fabrizio: Every kind of music that moves me and in some way touches me was welcome these past two months. I listened to everything from blues to old spirituals, from jazz to classical. I just appreciate the music because it is a wonderful gift, a gift of beauty. But all my life I’ve not just listened to blues – my ears are always wide open!
Gary: Now, I remember we met on that wonderful pre-Grammy’s concert in the City Winery in New York City a couple of years ago. Being nominated for a Grammy in 2018 must have been an incredibly proud moment for you, Fabrizio.
Fabrizio: I remember that City Winery evening very well. The best memories! And yes, I was very proud. It was like a dream come true, something I really didn’t expect. Great memories, a lot of people I love were there, and it was a great experience I will cherish in my heart for the rest of my life.
Gary: Did you ever think when you first lifted the harmonica that the road would take you there?
Fabrizio: No, not at all. If a friend of mine had come to me in my little room in the middle of nowhere in Northern Italy and said to me, You know Fabrizio, one day you will challenge the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Gardens in New York for a Grammy, I would have said, my friend, don’t kid with me, it will never happen!
And I owe a lot to the Rolling Stones. Because I discovered the blues from the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Eric Clapton – as many people of my generation did. At that time, in Italy you couldn’t hear Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. So, in a way, I won two times at the Grammys – once to be there, and for me it was a wonderful experience, and secondly, for the victory of the Rolling Stones – in some way, they were like my musical fathers. So, without the Rolling Stones, no Fabrizio at the Grammys!
Gary: You’re very generous, Fabrizio, because I think a lot of people felt that the record you and Guy made was much more of a traditional blues album and should have taken the award.
Fabrizio: I think for most of the journalists there, they felt that the Rolling Stones didn’t win the Grammy just for that album. They had never won a Grammy for an album, just one back in the 80s they had won for a video, but they had never won one for, Exile on Main Street or Let It Bleed, which were historic albums. So the Grammys owed the Rolling Stones an award. And that was the time.
Gary: Did you get to meet any of them?
Fabrizio: The night before at the City Winery in New York at the blues party, which you were at – someone said that Keith Richards is in town. So maybe he’ll show up. But he didn’t! But I had the opportunity to jam with some Rolling Stones musicians!
Gary: As we eventually come out of this terrible situation, what are you hoping for? Can the world be different?
Fabrizio: I hope it will be better. I hope we learn something from this tragedy, but I’m not sure. I’m not really optimistic. Musicians have been very much affected by this tragedy, and I don’t know what the future for music is. Aside from the big stars, what will happen to little clubs, to musicians who don’t have a lot of money? I’m afraid there may be dark times. And I hope that people around the world will understand that now is the time to support musicians. If not, they will not survive any more. Music may change for ever and we will lose something very important.
Too many people take music for granted, think that music is free, that musicians don’t need to pay bills. Now it’s time for us to grow up and understand that music is life. Musicians give us their talent their creativity.
Gary: Presumably, Fabrizio, not being able to perform has had a financial impact on you?
Fabrizio: Well, you know, the most beautiful reward a musician has is the clapping hands, and people who come up to you and tell you your playing was amazing. So this is a very big loss. Playing for people live on stage, connecting with them is something that can’t be done in the same way with technology.
Gary: Eventually we will come out of this. And what about for you and Angelina – what are you looking forward to?
Fabrizio: To go back our old life. And to start again to hug people! Because, yes you can communicate with your eyes, but a hug can communicate something that is hard to communicate with words. So, when some doctor tells me, OK, Fabrizio, go ahead and hug someone, that will be a very bright day!
Gary: Lovely to talk to you both, I hope you stay well. And we are looking forward to seeing some more nice videos from you.