Blind Boys of Alabama Spread

Blind Boys of Alabama - Interview with Jimmy Carter by Chet Cooper

Formed some six and a half decades ago, The Blind Boys of Alabama are the Ironmen of the music industry. They predate Elvis, Little Richard and Al Green, yet even in their 70s they are still at the top of the gospel charts and have earned impressive three-peat honors by winning consecutive Grammy Awards for the past three years. In the past five years, they’ve recorded moving renditions of songs by everyone from Tom Waits to Prince side by side with their traditional material, and they have appeared as guests on record and on stage with an equally diverse array of artists, from Peter Gabriel to Ben Harper.

A huge gospel sensation back in the 1940s and 1950s, The Blind Boys—led by founding members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott—brought their music to secular audiences in 1983 when they appeared in the smash hit musical The Gospel at Colonus, an Obie Award-winning off-Broadway and Broadway production. This modern classic also featured Morgan Freeman and was seen nationwide on PBS’ Great Performances.

The Boys caught the ears of more mainstream listeners with their Grammy-nominated 1992 album Deep River. That album ignited what has proven one of the busiest and commercially successful periods of The Blind Boys’ career.

In 2001, The Blind Boys moved firmly into the mainstream with the release of Spirit of the Century, the first of three consecutive Grammy-winning recordings. A triumph that blended gospel, blues, soul and folk, Spirit of the Century won the 2001 Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. The Blind Boys’ version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” became the theme song for the acclaimed HBO series The Wire, and on the big screen The Blind Boys performed their version of “Soldier” in the 2002 film The Fighting Temptations.

Further acclaim and another Grammy win for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album followed with 2002’s Higher Ground. In 2003, The Blind Boys scored their third consecutive Grammy for Go Tell It On the Mountain, a star-studded Christmas album.

In 2004, a session with the young chart-topping artist Ben Harper spilled into a full-fledged album and another hit, “There Will Be a Light.” Nominated for three Grammys, the album also saw The Blind Boys break The Billboard Top 100 for the first time in the group’s history.

Honored at the 22nd Annual Media Access Awards, founding member of The Blind Boys Jimmy Carter was on hand to receive the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) Disability Awareness Award. ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper spoke afterward with Carter.

Chet Cooper: Congratulations for being honored with the AFTRA Disability Awareness Award at the Media Access Awards.

Jimmy Carter: Thank you. It did me good to see all the people, including myself, out there overcoming our disabilities. I think it’s a great thing they’re doing.

CC: How was The Blind Boys of Alabama formed?

JC: We were all going to a school for the blind in a little town in Alabama called Talladega. All the kids from the state who were blind would go to that school. We started off in a choir, from the choir we formed a glee club, and from the glee club we became The Blind Boys of Alabama.

CC: Who came up with the name?

JC: In the beginning we weren’t The Blind Boys; we were called the Hackerland Jubilee Singers. What happened was there was another blind group from Mississippi called the Jackson Harmineers. We were both invited to a battle of music, and the DJ, to promote his program, used the gimmick, “The blind boys of Mississippi gonna battle the blind boys of Alabama.” It stuck and that’s how we got the name The Blind Boys of Alabama.

CC: So the important question on everyone’s mind is who won the competition?

JC: (laughs) The Blind Boys of Mississippi.

CC: Are they still performing?

JC: The real ones are not, but the group is still going on.

CC: How often do The Blind Boys of Alabama perform?

JC: I would say 150 to 200 days out of the year, give or take. It’s kind of hectic, but we’re still hanging in there.

CC: And you have been keeping that up for how many years?

JC: I’ve been singing since 1944, June 10th.

CC: Are they all paying gigs?

JC: Oh yeah, all of them pay. We do some benefits now because we are also involved in the American Diabetes Association. Three of us are diabetics.

CC: Do you yourself have diabetes?

JC: Yeah, I do. Type II.

CC: How is your health?

JC: I am doing pretty good, thank God.

CC: What are your memories of growing up in the South during the civil rights movement?

JC: We knew there was a problem with the segregated stuff, but we were never harassed. At that time we knew how far we could go and we stayed where we were supposed to be.

CC: Do you think your blindness was a factor in your not experiencing discrimination?

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Read the rest of the interview with your order of ABILITY Magazine. Other articles in the Robert David Hall issue include Letter From The Editor, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: Cell It Somewhere Else; Headlines: MS, Alzheimer's, Flu Benefit & Tsunami Relief; Senator Harkin: Disability Rights Abroad; Media Access: Pursuing Inclusion and Representation; Behavior-Based Interviewing: Identifying Ability; Innovations: Balance Sport Wheelchairs; Motor Vehicle Accidents: Frightening Statistics; Test Drive: Get Off Your Knees; Recipes: Coast to Coast Cuisine; World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences... subscribe!

More excerpts from the Robert David Hall issue:

Robert David Hall: Interview by Chet Cooper

Tech Section: Accessibility for Everyone

Religion & Spirituality: The Health Connection

Jun Q'anil: One Who Walks the Way

Cancer Dance: The Journey of Cathy McClain Kaplan