âBattered 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.â ââI Shall Not Walk Aloneâ
The next time you sing or listen to an age-old hymnâ âAmazing Grace,â âHave Thine Own Way Lord,â or âIâll Fly Awayââclose 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 todayâs 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 groupâs miles-deep gospel roots.
The Blind Boysâ 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 canât forget that day: âI remember it as if it was yesterday. When my mom walked off and left me, I thought the world had come to an end.â
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 werenât 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 âfive people in the back and three in the front.â
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 didnât come until in 1948âthe soulful, yearning âI Can See Everybodyâs Mother
But Mine.â 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 ânâ 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.
âWe made a vow that we would not deviate from our calling,â Carter told 60 Minutes II in 2008. âWe were going to stick to gospel no matter what. The money might have looked all right Viagra Online, but we wasnât thinking about that.â
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 âThe Gospel at Colonus,â a retelling of Sophoclesâ tragedy âOedipus at Colonus.â The show, which was eventually televised on PBSâs 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.
âIt 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,â Fountain said in 2008. âAnd I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I wouldn’t have traded it for nothing.â
The latest offerings from the Blind Boys show them in no danger of stopping their upward trajectory. The 2009 âDuetsâ anthology features 14 collaborations of myriad stylesârock, country, contemporary Christian, blues, ballads, even reggaeâall brought together by the Blind Boysâ 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, âTake the High Roadâ 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, âWhen we bring people in to our projects, we look for those that have some soul in their singing. All these folks, they bring soul. Thatâs why it sounds so good. Thatâs what itâs all about.â
âThe connection between the material, the Nashville guests and the Blind Boys felt like destiny,â echoes Chris Goldsmith, their producer or executive producer on every album since 2001. âSomewhere in history, these two almost identical styles of musicâ country and gospelâwent their separate ways. This record brings them back together.â
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 âThe Wireâ and âLost,â and in feature films like âThe Fighting Temptations,â âHopâ and Disneyâs âBrother Bear.â 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 âAmazing Graceâ to the tune of âThe House of the Rising Sun.â
Current members of the band are vocalists Jimmy Carter, Bishop Billy Bowers and Ben Moore, drummer Eric âRickyâ McKinnie, lead guitarist Joey Williams, bassist Tracy Pierce and organist Peter Levin. To view the Blind Boys of Alabamaâs current tour schedule, which includes a three-night engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music March 28-31, visit www.blindboys.com.