The Blind Boys of Alabama Reflect on Their 7-Decade History & What's Left for Them to Achieve
There are few groups still making music that got their start during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, but longevity has been one of the hallmarks of the Blind Boys of Alabama. Formed more than 70 years ago, the Gospel act is still making music – and plowing unique musical ground. Their upcoming album Almost Home (Aug. 18) is proof of that: the group is singing songs and lyrics that have been inspired by their lives, but told through the pen of songwriters such as John Leventhal and Marc Cohn.
"These men were raised as blind, African-American males in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, and they were sent to a school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms or mops for a living," says Blind Boys manager Charles Driebe, who co-produced three of the tracks on the release. “But they've transcended all that. The arc of their lives and of the band reflects the arc of a lot of changes in American society, and we wanted to find a way to capture their experiences in songs." Driebe recorded interviews with the members of the Blind Boys, and then shared the footage with the songwriters, who used their musical gifts to create a package unlike any that the group has ever recorded.
“It’s something that we’ve never done before,” stresses the group’s Jimmy Carter, 85, to Billboard. “The album tells about the journey that the Blind Boys have made over the years. It’s a unique album, and I think it turned out pretty good,” he says, though he admits the concept was a little bit foreign to him. “I was really surprised by how well it came off. They just interviewed me and I told them the stories, and they ran with it. There’s a song on there called 'Let My Mother Live.' I had told them about how scared I was, and that I wanted my mother to live until I got grown. John Leventhal made a great song out of that one.”
Listening to Leventhal’s lyrics took Carter back to those days growing up, and made him both nostalgic and thankful at the same time. “I’m a firm believer in God. I’m not perfect, but I’m a Christian. I used to ask God all the time to let my mama live until I was grown. He not only let her live until then, but he let her live to be a hundred and three years old. She passed away in 2009. When I hear that song, it makes me think about how good God has been to me. I was grown twice.”
Carter gets emotional when he discusses the album's uplifting “Singing Brings Us Closer,” which is a tribute to the relationship that they feel toward each other. “Phil Cook wrote that song, and it talks about one of our members that has passed away in 2005. We thought about how he would love to be here now, and see us carrying on. When we think about that, it does bring us closer together and closer to him. It makes you realize how proud he would be of us if he could be here now.”
Another highlight of Almost Home is the stirring “Stay On The Gospel Side,” which Carter insists is the group’s story. “We started in 1944, and had a lot of setbacks, but we did just what the song says – we stayed on the Gospel side. We were determined not to deviate from what we had set out to do in the beginning.”
Granted, it wasn’t easy for the Blind Boys for many years, as America was very different in the 1940s South. “We started off in the South at a time when it was very segregated,” Carter related. “We couldn’t go certain places or do certain things. We couldn’t sing to all the people that we wanted to. We wanted to sing to everybody. We wanted to spread the Gospel to whites as well as blacks, and we couldn’t then. But, now we can, and everything is looking good.”
In fact, the group that once was refused service at restaurants below the Mason-Dixon line has played at America’s most important residence – multiple times. “It’s amazing, when you think about it. We’ve been to the White House, and sang to three different presidents. Things look so much better now.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama also performed at several rallies and events with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. over the years, although Carter admits to one regret about those days. “I have to tell you that we never really got the chance to meet the man. I wanted to meet him so very badly, but he was always on the move. But we did our share of performances with him back then, and we thank God for that opportunity.”
Something else Carter says is easier now is the recording studio – which he doesn’t mind one bit. “I love all the changes. It’s much easier now to record. Technology has produced a lot of things. You don’t have to sing it over and over again. You can do it one time, and they can double it. There’s so much they can do technically nowadays. It’s truly amazing.”
Admittedly in the twilight of their musical careers, what is the ingredient that has kept the Blind Boys together? Carter says they simply love what they do, and have a passion for it. “People ask me ‘Jimmy, what keeps you going? You’ve been doing this for such a long time.’ I say ‘When you love what you do, that keeps you going.’ We love to sing Gospel Music, and have been doing it for a long time. I hope we continue doing that. I hope we got a few more years left.” When asked about their legacy, Carter says “We hope that our legacy lives forever. The Blind Boys of Alabama are a Gospel group. Our message is to tell the world about Jesus Christ. We like to touch lives, and encourage people and bring them hope in their time of despair. We want our legacy to be that we have touched lives, and made people come to Christ. When we are gone, I hope that the songs will live on, and our legacy will be touching lives and all of that.” He says they are doing the work they feel they were put on earth to do. “When the Blind Boys started out, we weren’t expecting anything or looking for any accolades. The only thing we wanted to do was to sing Gospel Music. After we got out there, and people began to recognize us, our first big highlight was the first Grammy, and then going to the White House. That was a good plateau reached, and then winning the Lifetime Achievement Award. God has been good to us, and we just want to thank him by keeping on going. We don’t know what God has in store for us, but whatever it is, we are ready for it.”
Are there any unfulfilled dreams for the group? Carter says he still has one item on the bucket list. “Not so much from a recording standpoint, but I would love to be in Israel on Christmas Day, and have a program, singing somewhere in Jerusalem. I’m not sure, but I think God is going to make that happen for me.”