Reap­ing bless­ings with the Blind Boys of Alabama

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ROGER CATLIN style@wash­post.com

Of the grade­school stu­dents who started singing to­gether in 1939 at the Alabama In­sti­tute for the Ne­gro Deaf and Blind, only a cou­ple are still alive. And just one of the found­ing mem­bers, Jimmy Carter, con­tin­ues to tour with the Blind Boys of Alabama. The group has per­formed for more than 75 years, meet­ing four pres­i­dents and playing the White House three times, and its ac­claim has only grown in re­cent decades.

Just since the new mil­len­nium, for ex­am­ple, the group, which has sung with such artists as Prince, Lou Reed and Ben Harper, has won a hand­ful of Gram­mys. Its 2013 al­bum, “I’ll Find a Way,” was recorded with Justin Ver­non of Bon Iver; “Talkin’ Christ­mas!” in 2014, with Taj Ma­hal.

The Blind Boys — Carter, Ben Moore, Eric “Ricky” McKin­nie, Paul Beasley and Joey Wil­liams — are re­turn­ing to Washington this month with a show at the Howard Theatre. We spoke with Carter, 85, by phone from New York, where the group was record­ing, by some counts, its 61st stu­dio al­bum.

Q: How does it feel to be the last sur­viv­ing Blind Boy of Alabama on the road?

A: Well, I love what I do. It’s a priv­i­lege for me to be around to do what I’m do­ing.

Q: Where did it all begin? A: The Blind Boys of Alabama started out in a lit­tle town in Alabama called Tal­ladega. This was the school for the blind, funded by the state of Alabama.

“We didn’t have no idea at all that we would reap what we did.” Jimmy Carter, found­ing mem­ber of the Blind Boys of Alabama

All the blind chil­dren in Alabama came to that school. That’s how we met. We went up there and they had mu­sic, they had a choir and they had a male cho­rus. From that, the quar­tet came to be.

Q: Was there a tra­di­tion of male gospel groups at the time?

A: Our idol group was a male group called the Golden Gate Quar­tet. They were on the ra­dio ev­ery day at 4 o’clock . . . . We didn’t have a ra­dio at school, so we had to slip off and go to peo­ple’s houses.

We said to our­selves, ‘If the Golden Gate Quar­tet could make a liv­ing at it, why couldn’t we?’ . . . June 10, 1944, is when we made the first step. It started with a ra­dio sta­tion broad­cast in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., WSGN. It was a pro­gram on there called “Echoes of the South.” That’s when they would play the Golden Gate Quar­tet records. So they al­lowed the Blind Boys to come to that ra­dio sta­tion that par­tic­u­lar day, June the 10th, and do the first broad­cast.

Q: At that mo­ment you prob­a­bly didn’t know you’d be do­ing it for the next 70 or so years.

A: No. Well, we said that we weren’t go­ing to turn back. When we started out, we were de­ter­mined to go as far as we could. We didn’t have no idea at all that we would reap what we did. We weren’t look­ing for that. All we wanted to do was to get out there and sing gospel mu­sic, and just tell the peo­ple about God. We weren’t look­ing for no ac­co­lades. Noth­ing like that. We were glad when we got them. But we weren’t look­ing for them.

Q: Did be­ing blind pre­vent you from tour­ing?

A: No. We had some ded­i­cated peo­ple who could see back then. You have to have some­body who can see. You have to be re­al­is­tic. There are some things that blind peo­ple, they need sighted folks to help them do. We re­al­ized that, so we tried to get the best we could and we got some re­ally good sighted peo­ple dur­ing that time.

Q: What kinds of places did you play in the be­gin­ning, and what did you sing, songs ev­ery­one knew?

A: At that time, we were mostly playing churches, high school au­di­to­ri­ums, el­e­men­tary school au­di­to­ri­ums. But mostly churches. Most of the songs that we sung, ev­ery­body knew them. They were stan­dard songs. We just added the Blind Boys fla­vor to them.

Q: What was that fla­vor? What did you do to make th­ese old songs your own?

A: We ar­ranged them dif­fer­ently, and I have to say that we just put our hearts into it. We be­lieved in giv­ing out our souls to the peo­ple. That’s what we did. That’s what we tried to do any­way.

Q: How did Jim Crow-era dis­crim­i­na­tion af­fect you?

A: We were trav­el­ing about in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, so you know you had seg­re­ga­tion at that time. But we were still de­ter­mined to do what we set out to do. Some­times af­ter the pro­gram, you were hun­gry but you couldn’t eat. You couldn’t go to the restau­rant be­cause all of the black restau­rants were closed, and the other restau­rants wouldn’t let us come in. We would go stop by the gro­cery store and get some bologna and white bread and eat that. We were de­ter­mined. We weren’t go­ing to turn around.

Q: A lot of gospel peo­ple at that time were go­ing into rock-an­droll and R&B.

A: That’s right. We were of­fered the same thing. Sam Cooke, when they of­fered him the rockand-roll con­tract, we were all to­gether in the same stu­dio. They of­fered the Blind Boys the same deal they of­fered him. But we turned them down. We didn’t want that. We wanted to sing gospel. That’s all we wanted to do.

Q: Even so, later on you’d sing songs by peo­ple from the sec­u­lar side.

A: Oh, my good­ness, yes. We col­lab­o­rated with many sec­u­lar artists. But you al­ways remember, if we couldn’t have a gospel sound or gospel lyrics or some­thing per­tain­ing to gospel, we didn’t fool with that.

Q: Did you ever have to change lyrics to ac­com­plish that?

A: We had to some­time. We had to change lyrics to make it be­come a gospel song. Ste­vie Won­der had “Higher Ground.” We had to change the lyrics to that, to make it what we wanted it to be.

Q: A lot of peo­ple first heard you when your ver­sion of Tom Waits’s “Down in the Hole” be­came the theme to the HBO show “The Wire.”

A: It made a dif­fer­ence. A dif­fer­ent au­di­ence. You know, when we got ex­posed to the main­stream of peo­ple, most of our au­di­ences now are white. They knew about us, but they hadn’t heard us. Be­cause we weren’t al­lowed to sing to them. But af­ter we were per­mit­ted sing to them, we found out they wanted it all the time. We hardly ever sing to black folks now.

Q: Now you have th­ese young artists such as Justin Ver­non of Bon Iver who want to work with you. A: We did that in the cold­est month of the year, I guess, De­cem­ber, in Eau Claire, Wis. But Justin had a warm heart and a warm house. He had a stu­dio in his house, so we went to his house and cut that al­bum. Ev­ery­thing worked out good.

Q: Did he know a lot about gospel as well?

A: He did. He brought a lot of stuff to the ta­ble that we weren’t do­ing.

Q: What do you per­form in your live shows now?

A: We have a va­ri­ety. We have tra­di­tional, we have con­tem­po­rary. We do it all. But it’s all gospel. That’s all it is. Noth­ing else.

Q: Are there cer­tain songs you have to per­form, that peo­ple will want to hear?

A: We got one, “Amaz­ing Grace.” That’s our sig­na­ture song. We do that on ev­ery show we have. Peo­ple are look­ing for that.

Q: And that’s the one where you hold that note for a long time.

A: I still like to do it. I can’t hold it as long as I used to, now. I’m get­ting old. But I still hold it a pretty good lit­tle while.

The Blind Boys of Alabama March 24 at 8 p.m. at the Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW. Tick­ets: $35-$70. 202803-2899. the­howardthe­atre.com.

CAMERON WITTING

The Blind Boys of Alabama, above, re­turn to Washington this month with a show at the Howard Theatre. The gospel group has per­formed for more than 75 years, ever since its found­ing mem­bers started singing to­gether in 1939 at the Alabama In­sti­tute for the Ne­gro Deaf and Blind. By some counts, the group has re­leased 61 stu­dio al­bums.

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