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The Blind Boys of Alabama Are Still Singing

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It has been some eight-plus decades since a young Jimmy Carter (not the president) first experienced the wonder of waking up and finding a basket of fruit and a new toy at the foot of his bed on Christmas morning.

A Birmingham, Alabama, native, Carter relishes those memories, but more so, he holds on to what Christmas has always meant most to him.

“Christmas to Jimmy Carter means it’s the day the Savior came to save the world,” the young-at-heart octogenarian says without hesitation. “I love the Christmas spirit, but I still believe in the original meaning of Christmas.”

What makes Christmas unique for Carter, 87, is that he has sung about it pretty much his entire life as one of the original founding members of the legendary gospel group, the Blind Boys of Alabama.
The group has accomplished much over the past eight decades. Most notably, it has won six Grammy Awards, four Dove Awards, was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2003, played for Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, and for three sitting presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

Carter is the sole current touring member of the original group which started out back in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama, as Clarence Fountain has been ill, and original members George Scott, Johnny Fields, Olice Thomas, and Vel Bozman Traylor have all passed.

“I think ours was a calling,” says Carter, who grew up with five brothers who all had their sight. “We had a music teacher in school, but we already knew how to sing. We were born to sing.”

Beyond the walls of the school, the Blind Boys of Alabama, at first known as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, performed on Sundays for local soldiers stationed nearby the school’s campus during WWII. Eventually, the Blind Boys’ success and touring aspirations led them to quitting school in their mid-teens to turn their talents into careers.

“We became like a family and we sang every Sunday, we sang in the choir, in the male chorus. All of that bonded us together,” says Carter about sticking to gospel when the ’60s soul and R&B genres became more popular. “All of our parents were born-again Christians. They taught us all about God and we were just determined that we were not going to deviate from what we were taught.”

The group had success right from the start with their first single, “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine,” on the Veejay Label in 1948. More hits would come over the next quarter-century.

Beginning in 2002, more contemporary artists gravitated to the Blind Boys, and one, Peter Gabriel, put them on his Real World Label with the release of their 52nd album, Spirit of the Century, which won the group its first-ever Grammy Award.

In fact, the list of performers Carter and the Blind Boys have worked with includes a number of contemporary household names, including George Clinton, Chrissie Hynde, Tom Waits, Prince, Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, K.D. Lang, Lou Reed, Tom Petty, and My Morning Jacket.

This past week, the announcement was made that the group’s live recording of “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” on a Blind Willie Johnson compilation has earned them their eighth Grammy Nomination, this one for Best American Roots Performance.

More important to Carter than awards and accolades, though, is performing live music and interacting with audiences.

“When I can go out there and hear those terrific applause, or that terrific response, you know what I mean,” Carter says, “I got a little joke I tell them [audiences]: ‘You’re all either really enjoying the Blind Boys, or you’re putting on a good front.’”

The Blind Boys of Alabama are performing their annual Christmas show on December 23 and 24 at Musical Instrument Museum.

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