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‘I Can Still See the Light’: The Transporting Sounds of the Blind Boys of Alabama

“Battered and torn

Still I can see the light Tattered and worn
But I must kneel to fight … When I’m tired and weary And a long way from home I reach for mother Mary And I shall not walk alone.” —”I Shall Not Walk Alone”

The next time you sing or listen to an age-old hymn– “Amazing Grace,” “Have Thine Own Way Lord,” or “I’ll Fly Away”—close your eyes. When the sense of sight vanishes, even for a few moments, the sounds of worship have an even greater power to transport you, unshackling your earthly bonds and raising you up nearer to heaven. Whether calling our minds to paradise lost or paradise to come, gospel lyrics sung evocatively can move listeners to emotional catharsis and heights of great joy, even exuberance.

Perhaps that sense of ecstasy is one of the reasons the Blind Boys of Alabama, an iconic gospel music group born into poverty and hardship, have been able to grace us with their sound for seven decades. Though today’s group includes one original member, Jimmy Carter (Clarence Fountain no longer performs with the band), the spirit of the Blind Boys lives on in new voices committed to the group’s miles-deep gospel roots.

The Blind Boys’ successful career was birthed in unlikely circumstances. Born to black Alabamians who were driven to difficult choices during the Depression, six blind boys were dropped off at the Talladega Home for the Deaf and Blind in 1936. All were all around 7 years old. Carter can’t forget that day: “I remember it as if it was yesterday. When my mom walked off and left me, I thought the world had come to an end.”

Although their days at the home about an hour from Birmingham, Ala., were strictly regimented and discipline was harsh, they were taught academics, vocations, how to read Braille, and, most importantly, how to sing. They weren’t members of the school choir long before they realized that there could be a brighter future in their soulful young voices than anyone would have imagined. In 1939, the Blind Boys left school, and, with the help of two sighted singers, started their arduous career journey, first setting off in a 1939 Buick that could fit “five people in the back and three in the front.”

For about 40 years, the group traveled around the country on the black gospel circuit, playing in churches and auditoriums, anywhere that could pay their way. Their first hit didn’t come until in 1948—the soulful, yearning “I Can See Everybody’s Mother

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But Mine.” They recorded numerous albums and became stars of the gospel world, but money was scarce, especially as promoters and producers took big cuts.

In the early 1950s, the Blind Boys were tempted to cross over embrace rock ‘n’ roll and popular music, just as their contemporaries Ray Charles and Sam Cooke had done, but they decided to stay firmly committed to their gospel roots, check it here.

“We made a vow that we would not deviate from our calling,” Carter told 60 Minutes II in 2008. “We were going to stick to gospel no matter what. The money might have looked all right Viagra Online, but we wasn’t thinking about that.”

They joined the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and performing at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King. In 1983 their music was prominently featured in the award- winning hit play “The Gospel at Colonus,” a retelling of Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus at Colonus.” The show, which was eventually televised on PBS’s Great Performances, finally brought the Blind Boys attention from a wider audience.

As they continued to tour nationally and internationally, the group began to enjoy notice from critics, winning the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album four straight years between 2002 and 2005. The Blind Boys of Alabama were recognized as National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows in 1994, inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. In 2010, they performed at the White House for President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

“It was only the goodness of the Lord that brought us from young kids into manhood. And now, we’re old men and still going on,” Fountain said in 2008. “And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I wouldn’t have traded it for nothing.”

The latest offerings from the Blind Boys show them in no danger of stopping their upward trajectory. The 2009 “Duets” anthology features 14 collaborations of myriad styles—rock, country, contemporary Christian, blues, ballads, even reggae—all brought together by the Blind Boys’ soulful harmonies. The album includes performances with Ben Harper, Lou Reed, Randy Travis, Bonnie Raitt, Solomon Burke, Susan Tedeschi, Jars of Clay and Charlie Musselwhite.

In 2011, they released a country/gospel album, “Take the High Road” featuring guest artists Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Hank Williams Jr., The Oak Ridge Boys and Jamey Johnson. Carter said about their latest record, “When we bring people in to our projects, we look for those that have some soul in their singing. All these folks, they bring soul. That’s why it sounds so good. That’s what it’s all about.”

“The connection between the material, the Nashville guests and the Blind Boys felt like destiny,” echoes Chris Goldsmith, their producer or executive producer on every album since 2001. “Somewhere in history, these two almost identical styles of music— country and gospel—went their separate ways. This record brings them back together.”

The mainstream success the Blind Boys of Alabama never sought is now, miraculously, at hand. Their unmistakable harmonies can be heard on such TV shows as “The Wire” and “Lost,” and in feature films like “The Fighting Temptations,” “Hop” and Disney’s “Brother Bear.” The group is open to experimenting to attract new, younger audiences to the age-old lyrical truths. Go to a show today, and you might catch them singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun.”

Current members of the band are vocalists Jimmy Carter, Bishop Billy Bowers and Ben Moore, drummer Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, lead guitarist Joey Williams, bassist Tracy Pierce and organist Peter Levin. To view the Blind Boys of Alabama’s current tour schedule, which includes a three-night engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music March 28-31, visit www.blindboys.com.

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