Having embarked professionally on their musical path in 1944, The Blind Boys of Alabama have become even more of an institution than the one that spawned them, the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. That one was founded in 1858, in a little town called Talladega and is still in existence today, but its fame would be in doubt were it not for the celebrated gospel choir.
An encounter with singer Jimmy Carter somehow calls to mind another great American institution, Methuselah, the Great Basin bristlecone pine that resides in the White Mountains of California. Up to the beginning of June this year he was one of the last two original members of the group, but with the death of Clarence Fountain on June 3 at the age of 88, Carter is the last original member left standing. At 89 years of age, Carter possesses a booming, full-chested, speaking voice, and is avuncular and unfailingly courteous. A gentleman in every sense of the word.
“You know, I hate to see my colleagues go, you know, pass away, but I’m glad I’m still here to carry on,” he proffers, reflecting on his unique status as sole original member and elder figurehead among the current Blind Boys of Alabama line up.
“I’m very fortunate in that I have some young men that are dedicated to what they do,” he adds.
“We are just like a family. We know one another; we look out for one another. Everything is going well.”
Before the Blind Boys of Alabama began touring in 1944, Carter was one of the half-a-dozen or so children who began singing together at the Alabama Institute in 1939.
“We all went to school together,” he recalls. “We just met up and started being friends and we found out that we could sing a little bit so we would sing around the school. So we decided that we might try to make a living out of it and that’s what we did.”
The Blind Boys took as their inspiration the Golden Gate Quartet. Founded in 1934, the Quartet had achieved popularity with their mix of spirituals and barbershop harmonies.
“They were our idols,” Carter exclaims. “We analysed those guys. We said if they could make a living out of it we could too. They were our influence.”
It took a while for the Blind Boys to establish themselves, but where the Golden Gate Quartet blended secular and spiritual forms the Blind Boys were devoutly gospel.
“We had a lot of set-backs but we were determined to sing gospel music,” says Carter. “This is what we wanted to do; this is what we felt that God had called us to do. And so, no matter how difficult it became we didn’t deviate. We stuck right there and it paid off for us. God has been good to us.
“All of the Blind Boys were brought up in a Christian family. Our parents were Christian people and they taught us about the Lord God. We learned to love God and we decided we were going to serve him. We hit the road and we didn’t worry about money.
“You know it takes money to live, of course, but our primary interest was to sing the gospel music and tell the world about Jesus Christ, that he died that we might live.”
In the racially divided Southern states they needed every ounce of faith to prevail in their musical mission and it took some time before they were able to make a living from singing.
“You have to remember that the South at that time was very segregated. You couldn’t go certain places so we were limited to just singing to Black audiences. We weren’t allowed to sing to white people at that time, but as time went on, you know, Martin Luther King, he came around and that helped out very much and now we can sing to anybody. And our audiences now, they are white, black… everybody doing fine!”
His voice is rich with reassurance, but having witnessed America at its worst, what does he make of the country right now?
“Well we still have a long way to go now,” he observes. “We haven’t finished. We have also come a long way. I feel proud of our country. Everything is getting along much better than it was.”
There have been cosmetic changes to the Blind Boys sound over the year but the core musical vision has remained intact.
“When the Blind Boys started out we just had one acoustic guitar. That’s all. Now you have a whole band. You have guitar, drums, bass, keyboard, all that. That came with the change of the times, so we had to change too. So now we have guitar, drums, we got it all. When we come to Cork you’ll see it,” Carter promises.
Having released an album, Almost Home, in 2017, Carter shows no sign of slowing down and hopes to release another album next year.
“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I want to go back and let the people know all about the sound from way back, you know. I want to go back to basics.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama play Cork City Hall on Friday, October 26, at 8pm.