In appreciation of: The Blind Boys of Alabama
The Blind Boys of Alabama, five-time Grammy Award winning gospel group, first sang together in 1944. They came together, aged around nine, in the glee club in 1944 at the Alabama Institute for the Blind in Talladega, Alabama. They recorded their first single in 1948, I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine, and went on to release a slew of albums over the next few decades.
In 2001, the Blind Boys released their most critically acclaimed and commercially successful album to date, Spirit of the Century, which won the 2001 Grammy award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. Over the past twelve years since that, they’ve given us a number of excellent albums, including a wonderful collaboration with Ben Harper in 2004, the superb
Atom Bomb (2005), which fused gospel with pop, rap, and the blues, the country-gospel album, “Take the High Road” in 2011 and then this year’s release, “I’ll Find a Way,” produced by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Along the way, they’ve collaborated with a large number of top-flight artists from the world of the blues, pop, soul, rap and country.
In a recent interview, Jimmy Carter, a founding member of The Blind Boys of Alabama, and the only one of the original group still touring regularly, spoke about how all the members of the band were raised on gospel music and loved it, and although they had plenty of opportunities along the way to cross over to soul or rock and roll, they stuck with what they started out with. Carter said simply, “The Lord had been good to us and we love to do this, we promised God that we would never deviate from singing gospel music.”
Carter spoke of the tough times, as the Blind Boys made their way in the Jim Crow south, living in run-down hotels or rooming houses, and not able to find a decent place to eat, as they toured around. Add to the problems of being an African American in that environment, the additional problems of being blind. Yet Carter remains incredibly upbeat. He said, “I don’t mind being blind, it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m happy. I can do just about anything anybody else can do except see.” Carter came to see that his singing was a calling, a job given to him by God. Once he realized that, he says, he never complained again! “I guess it [a calling to sing] just came from up above, from him. After he told me that, you he just gave me peace, man. I just felt peace. That’s all I can say.”
This incredible positive approach to life, this defiant faith, despite life’s difficulties and trials, is something which comes across strongly in both the Blind Boys’ live performances and albums. Take the recently released I’ll Find a Way. The vibe all the way through, both lyrically and musically, is very positive. It’s based on a solid trust in God, who, for the Blind Boys, is always there, is always the rock no matter what life may throw at you.
Rainbow in the Cloud is a good example: “When it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine any more, God put a rainbow in the cloud.” That being the case, “I’ll find a way to carry it on,” they sing on I’ll find a Way. The Blind Boys’ approach to life is expressed simply in Take Your Burden to the Lord: “If you trust and never doubt, he will surely bring you out.” What we might need to be “brought out” of is exemplified in this verse of the song:
“If your mother dead and gone
And you’ve sitting here all alone,
And your burden seems so hard for you to bear
But if you be true
God will surely bring you through
Take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there.”
This dogged faith in the midst of trials get further expression in the excellent cover of Dylan’s Every Grain of Sand: “In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand.” In the rich traditional harmonies and Vernon’s fine production, grace moves throughout. The Blind Boys, who have faced more hardship than most of us, remind us of the value of thankfulness and simple trust in the face of adversity. As one of the current line-up Ricky McKinnie recently said, “Our disability doesn’t have to be a handicap. It’s not about what you can’t do. It’s about what you do. And what we do is sing good gospel music.” That’s an attitude to life worth cultivating.