Initially, Grammy-winning “Walking In Memphis” composer Marc Cohn was curious how his woodsy vocals might sound alongside the seasoned spiritual plaints of gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama. But after co-writing the 2016 song “Let My Mother Live” with band founders Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter, he was magnetically drawn to them. Fountain died, but Cohn, Carter and company went on to make the 2019 album “Work To Do,” which includes traditionals like “Walking in Jerusalem” as well as another version of Cohn’s signature tune, which also is being used in a Facebook campaign. “Now that I’ve gotten to know their voices better, I can’t stop writing songs for them to sing,” he says.
Within one recent 24-hour period, I heard “Walking in Memphis” playing in Target, mentioned on “Jeopardy” and soundtracking that “friendlier-Facebook” ad. And it still sounds great, three decades on.
That thing has legs! That’s all I can say. I don’t even understand it. And to be honest, I don’t even feel that I wrote it; it’s a weird thing. I feel so much more connected to all these other songs I wrote that people may not know. And I never dreamed that something so personal would be accepted so universally. Now that song just feels like it belongs to everybody.
It’s also a nice capsule of true fandom.
It’s a song about the innate power of music. And fandom. And looking back, I’m not even sure if I heard any music on Beale Street. And not to mention, that in that particular place, music is everywhere, and not in the places that I expected to find it. What I heard in Al Green’s church [in Memphis] changed my life forever. Al Green was one of my favorite singers, but to hear him sing in his own church, among his own congregation? That was just otherworldly.
You and the Blind Boys, it’s such a good match, it’s amazing that you guys haven’t teamed up before now.
I was asked to write a few songs with them at first, and that song “Let My Mother Live” is actually Jimmy’s story. He used to go to bed every night after his father died as a young blind kid and pray that his mother be allowed to live so that he wouldn’t be alone. That was something I heard in an interview, so I basically took lines that he and Clarence had said and wrote songs not only for them, but about them.
What did they teach you?
A deeper humility. Sometimes out on the road, I’ll think, “Man, what a long, tiresome day.” Then I’ll look over at Jimmy, who’s about to turn 88, and I’ve never once heard him complain. He’s just happy to be there.
IF YOU GO
Taj Mahal Quartet, Marc Cohn & The Blind Boys of Alabama, Shemekia Copeland
Where: Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Road, Saratoga
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Tickets: $39 to $275
Contact: (408) 741-2822, www.axs.com