Friday, March 18, 2005


Love thy neighbour!

The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Jesus Gave Me Water.

A sanctified ancestor of soul music. The spirit moves Archie Brownlee and he follows it.

Gospel had become a popular music by mid-century, ruled by singers like Mahalia Jackson and by the great quartets like the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Sensational Nightingales. But it was the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi (not to be confused with their arch rivals, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama) who managed to land a gospel song in the Billboard R&B top 10 chart in 1950--a secular achievement that is still rare, even in such a religion-soaked country as this.

The Blind Boys were originally a quartet who met at the Piney Woods School, one of the first Southern black academies and which began accepting blind students in the 1920s. Archie Brownlee, Lloyd Woodard, Joseph Ford and Lawrence Abrams were first known as the Cotton Blossom Singers, then as the Jackson Harmoneers, though their first recording for Alan Lomax in 1937 was listed under the prosaic name "Blind Boys", which ultimately stuck.

Brownlee's scorching lead vocals would define the group (until his death in 1960), but it was the addition of a sighted singer and manager, the Rev. Percell Perkins, that brought the group into another league. Under Perkins' leadership (and replacing bass singer Joseph Ford with the wonderfully named J.T. Clinkscales), the Five Blind Boys began recording for first Excelsior Records and then Houston-based Peacock, for which they cut their most popular singles. They were a fearsome bunch--rival gospel groups would say that no one wanted to follow the Five Blind Boys after the latter had inflamed the congregation.

"Jesus Gave Me Water", backed with "Amazing Grace", was the Blind Boys' second Peacock single, Peacock 1536. (Their third, "Our Father" would add drums and be their biggest hit around Christmas 1950--you can hear the track on this fine new gospel and soul blog, Hellhounds and Holyghosts.) The Soul Stirrers were so inspired by the Five Blind Boys' version that they re-cut "Water" the following year as a showcase for their new 19 year-old singer, Sam Cooke.

"Water" can be found on this fine & cheap collection. More Blind Boys here.

Lyrics. If you wish to go back to the source: the KJV Bible on Jesus, the Samaritan woman and their thirsty conversation. John, chapter 4.

Great modern gospel at Tofu Hut, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe too.

And in case you haven't already, please check out Stagolee week at Honey Where You Been So Long, to which I'm honored to have contributed.

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