Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 4, 2013
For some, it comes in a cloud of smoke. For others, a stiff drink and blast of raw sound works. But for me at this ACL Fest, the first moment of bliss was accompanied by a tall, icy glass of Maine root beer and a healthy dose of soul-ripping Blind Boys of Alabama. I’ll let the music writers unravel why this gospel group — which goes back to the 1930s and has since stirred up a fair share of soul and rock — appeals so primaly to ACL audiences. But they did and they do. Authenticity helps. Lots of ACL acts draw on the musical roots of a particular region. The Blind Boys are the roots. The crowd was overwhelmingly white, as is all of ACL, but that didn’t stop them from stomping, slapping their hands and roaring out their part in the frequent calls and responses. The Blind Boys touch something deep inside our souls for a lot of reasons. Early this morning, I interviewed the Rev. G.V. Clark, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church on East 13th Street. For 35 years, he has served as moderator of the St. John Regular Baptist Association. In a voice rich and full — though world weary — he told me about the St. John camp meetings that lasted for two weeks each July and attracted tens of thousands of black Baptists to Austin. Although the group is shrinking, they still meet for a week each year at a more modern tabernacle on Blessing Avenue in the St. John neighborhood, where the pastor grew up. He told me more about the St. John’s Orphan Home, which had closed by the time he was a child, but he remembered the stately old main building and the fight against vandals who ripped it apart. Why have I gone off course here? Maybe it’s the heat, which is beginning to abate. Yet I think of the two jerks in yachting caps who snapped at me just before my Maine root beer and near-religious musical experience and wonder how many entitled men the pastor must have endured over the years. And what a balm is great gospel music.