Eighty years of gospel with the Blind Boys of Alabama

If anyone should know about pushing beyond what you think is possible, it’s Jimmy Carter.

At age 87, he’s the lone surviving original member of the Blind Boys of Alabama. He was the only blind son of six kids and was taken away from his family to be put into the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. School life created strong, family-like relationships, but it was music that formed lasting bonds of friendship.

These men were raised as blind African-Americans in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, and they were sent to school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms or mops for a living. But in 1939, George Scott, Jimmy Carter, Clarence Fountain and several other classmates began playing and singing together at churches and schools in the Talladega area. And in June of 1944, the group decided to leave school and strike out on their own to see if they could make a living doing what they enjoyed most — making music.

It was wartime in the segregated South, but these young men — filled with faith, spirit, talent and determination — set out to prove something to themselves and the world.

Their career has spanned 80 years and 64 albums. It’s almost unbelievable that a group of blind African-American singers who started out touring during a time of whites-only bathrooms, restaurants and hotels went on to win five Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award, to be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and to perform at the White House for three different U.S. presidents.

Ahead of the group’s recent concert in Toronto, Jimmy Carter joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen for a conversation.

Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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When you were just a toddler, you were sent to the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. You must still remember that first day, even now. 

I remember that day as if it was yesterday.

How did the group form, exactly?

This school was funded by the state of Alabama, and every blind child had to go to that school if they wanted to get an education. So, we met and we started singing together, and we found out that we might have somethin’ goin’. We said let’s see what we can do with it. There was a quartet at that time on the road called the Golden Gate Quartet, and we said if they can make it, we could, too. That’s how it’s done.

It’s an interesting story how you got the name.

That was a DJ in New Jersey that gave us that name. At that same time, there was another blind group out of Mississippi. So, he wanted to get the two groups together to have a battle of music. He said, “I’m going to have the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Blind Boys of Mississippi on the same bill.” When all that was settled, the whole group decided to keep the name going.

Did you actually have competitions?

It was friendly. It was a good gimmick — two blind groups on the same stage. It was a friendly competition, but it was a competition.

If there’s just one gospel song that folks should listen to, what would that be? 

Amazing Grace, of course.

The Blind Boys have never strayed from gospel music, have you?

And we never will.

When soul music took over the charts in the ’60s, you never wavered. But did people ever try to sway you into singing soul music or R&B?

When Sam Cooke went to soul music, we were in the studio at the same time. When they talked to Sam about switching over, they talked to us, too. We turned them down. We said no, we’re going to stick to gospel. We know it’s what we were brought up on, and we’re not going to deviate from that.

How many presidents have you met?

I’ve met three. Bush, Clinton and Obama.

And you met Jimmy Carter, too?

Oh yeah, I met Jimmy Carter, too.

Jimmy Carter meets Jimmy Carter. That’s unbelievable. Now, it feels like the Blind Boys are on the road constantly. Do you ever think maybe this year you’ll put your feet up and relax?

Travelling is beginning to get a little rough on me. Oh man, I can’t do what I used to do. But I’m still in good shape, you know.

When you are kicking back at home, what do you listen to?

I love country music. I’m a Gordon Lightfoot fan, too. I’ve never met him, and I would love to meet him. I hope I do before I die.