Courtesy of All Eyes Media
Marc Cohn and producer John Leventhal were working together on a song for William Bell’s 2017 album, This Is Where I Live
record, when Blind Boys of Alabama manager Charles Driebe, who also works with Bell, introduced Cohn to the Blind Boys. That would prove to be a significant introduction.
Cohn would go on to write three songs for the Blind Boys’ last record, Almost Home
. The album includes the Cohn-Leventhal composition “Let My Mother Live,” which was nominated for a Grammy for Best American Roots Performance.
Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama toured together, and during a 2018 concert at City Winery in New York, the gospel group made Cohn an honorary member.
At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 18, Cohn and the Blind Boys bring their tour to Cain Park
. The bill also includes Robert Cray Band and Shemekia Copeland.
In separate phone interviews, Cohn and Blind Boys leader Jimmy Carter speak about the collaboration.
Talk about how you first met.
The Blind Boys and William Bell had the same manager, who is now my manager as of two or three weeks ago. He called to see if John Leventhal would produce the William Bell record, and John called me to co-write about half the record. I love that record. That was my entre into the Blind Boys world. They were starting a record as well. The manager smartly just didn’t ask a bunch of writers to write songs for the Blind Boys. He picked a few writers that he liked sent us interviews he did with two of the guys, Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain, who has since passed away. Jimmy is the only original surviving member. He’s something like 88 years old and just a force of nature. They sent us these interviews, which were very poignant, touching and beautiful. The guys talked about their lives and the difficulty of being blind and black in the South. It was impossible not to be inspired. I love that kind of almost-journalistic assignment. I took copious notes. It was my job to find the poetry in what they were saying, which was pretty easy because they’re amazing narrators. That was the beginning of writing for them. I don’t remember if I had done any shows with them at that point, but they did some shows with me when my first record turned 25 years. We played that record from start to finish, and the Blind Boys were on some of those shows.
My manager was the one who brought us together, and I’m glad he did. Marc is always a funny guy. He’s always got something to say. Within 15 minutes after we met each other, we were good friends.
You come from different backgrounds, culturally and musically. What do you have in common?
It’s hard for me to explain why I’ve always loved gospel music, but it’s the truth. There’s spirit and meaning and depth to it. That sound has always been magical to me. I remember being drawn to it from the first time I heard it. I remember seeing Say Amen Somebody
. It’s an incredible movie with nothing but gospel singer after gospel singer. I’m a Jewish kid from Cleveland, Ohio, and I was transported in a way I was never transported in temple. It was really remarkable, and the journey I’ve been on has just led me to gospel music. I also became familiar with the Dixie Hummingbirds, who did some tracks with Paul Simon. Those are some of my favorite tracks ever recorded. I went to Memphis and met Muriel, who is a gospel singer, and I met Al Green in the church I went to. That became my signature calling card largely because of the gospel music I heard. And now, there’s this collaboration with the Blind Boys. It’s another thread in the tapestry of my inexplicable connection to gospel music.
He likes our type of music. We have that in common. He always talks about the Blind Boys of Alabama. We got music in common.
Talk about the late Clarence Fountain.
I have the greatest Clarence story. He had stopped performing a couple of years ago. He came to a show. One night, I can’t remember where we were now, maybe North Carolina. It was an amazing moment when he showed up. He hadn’t seen Jimmy in a while. He hadn’t been on stage in a long time. He was in a wheelchair and wasn’t feeling great. I asked the tour manager if he could come out and say a few things. Nobody thought he would. Sure enough, he came out on stage in his wheelchair and talked to the crowd. Before we knew it, he started singing “Down by the Riverside” and killed it. It was magnificent. They all sang together like they’ve been singing together for 60 years, which they have. About two weeks later, they passed. That was his last performance on stage, and I got to witness it and be part of it. I never really sang with him except for the few minutes. I mostly just stood back in awe and watched.
He was one of the founders. He was an amazing lead singer. He brought all there is to bring to the group. He sang with his heart. What comes from the heart reaches the heart. He reached a whole lot of people.
You recently cut a live album, Work To Do. Talk about that.
We just completed it. It’ll come out in a few months. It’s three new live studio tracks, one old gospel song, two new songs that I wrote and six or seven live tracks from a PBS taping we did. I’m really excited about it. It’s a really soulful record as you can imagine. They’ve collaborated with so many great artists, and I’m thrilled I got the chance.
Talk about the City Winery concert during which Marc became an honorary member.
I didn’t know it was going to happen that night. But becoming an honorary Blind Boy is a remarkable thing. Ever since that, Jimmy [Carter] has been really funny. He calls me his Hebrew Buddy or something like that. He said that when he gave me the jacket.
Yes, we gave him a Blind Boys jacket. One thing I liked about that is that he loves the Blind Boys. I know that for a fact. He’s always letting the people know about us.
What do you hope people take away from the concerts you’re playing together?
These gentlemen make a joyful noise. I’m just glad to be along for the ride. They are remarkable. The main thing I want people to know is that sometimes you see a bill and think one artist will do a set and then other will. We spend most of the show together on stage. There are a couple of songs I do with my band, and a couple of a songs they do with my band. But for most of the night, we’re collaborating, and it’s wonderful. What they bring to my music, which is inspired by gospel anyway, is a beautiful thing. I have people who have told me that they haven’t seen me so happy on stage as when I’m with the Blind Boys, and I know that’s the truth.
There’s a lot of racism going on, and I hope we can help end some of that. I hope this would be the kind of thing that would help solve that problem.
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