Music

Blind Boys of Alabama blend traditional gospel with holiday tunes and modern hits

For a brief moment, Jimmy Carter questioned his faith.

All five of his siblings could see, but Carter was born blind.

While Carter lacked sight, he soon came to believe that it was God's vision that propelled him on an astonishing, 75-year musical pilgrimage with the Blind Boys of Alabama.

"My parents had six boys and every one of the boys could see except me," Carter said. "I questioned (God) about that. Why did he give everyone sight except me? He knew if I had my sight, I wouldn't have been able to do what I've done. He saw farther down the road than I did."

It's a journey that's seen the Blind Boys win five Grammy Awards, perform for three presidents and collaborate with many American music icons.

The Blind Boys of Alabama unofficially formed in the late 1930s at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama. Singing gospel music in radiant, tightly braided harmonies, the group originally included seven members, and all but one were blind.

The singers almost immediately gained audiences in the Jim Crow South.

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"We started out, we were singing mostly to predominantly black audiences," Carter said. "We couldn't go anywhere but churches, high schools, elementary schools."

The early years weren't always kind to the group -- which faced both institutional racism and, sometimes, individuals who preyed on their inexperience.

"We were determined when we set out to do this work," he said. "We were not turning back and there were some setbacks. We weren't allowed to go or eat in certain places. We didn't know anything. We were green and sometimes you go on the road and people would take advantage of you. That happened to us but we were still determined."

Gospel music boomed in the 1950s, even spawning crossover stars like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. The era was also good to the Blind Boys, whose initial recordings helped garner a more widespread appeal.

"When segregation became a thing of the past, we got in the mainstream," Carter said. "That's when the accolades started coming."

In the '60s, other traditionally black music forms like jazz, soul and R&B began lapping gospel. While the Blind Boys' fan base stagnated, they stayed culturally relevant, performing at civil rights functions with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Although the group maintained a mandate to its gospel roots, the Blind Boys eventually started dabbling in other genres.

"Spirit of the Century" earned a Grammy in 2002 for Best Traditional Gospel Album, but it was anything but traditional.

It featured blues stalwarts John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite, and included a cover of the Tom Waits song "Way Down in the Hole."

"Higher Ground" won a second Grammy the next year and continued the trend of welcoming other styles to the band's trademark sound. It featured a distinct soul bent and included songs written by Prince and Stevie Wonder, among others.

"We were trying to get more young people involved in our music, and that's when we started playing with more secular artists," Carter said. "We started relating to the young people. As a result of that, we have more young people coming to our concerts than ever before. Even though we collaborate, we have not deviated from our gospel roots. If you bring me a song, we have to do it the way we want to do it. You've got to be gospel if the Blind Boys are doing it."

Although the Blind Boys have explored a number of themes in recent decades, Carter said the overarching message is positive.

"We want (the audience) to feel like we feel," he said. "When we go onstage, say something and sing something that will lift you up and make you feel good -- make you feel something you've never felt before."

The Blind Boys' two stops in Alaska will be part of a tour featuring the seasonal music of Christmas, another genre the group has conquered.

"Go Tell It on the Mountain" won a Grammy in 2004 and was followed up last year with "Talkin' Christmas!," a collaboration with blues giant Taj Mahal.

Carter said the Alaska shows will be a mixture of holiday songs and traditional gospel.

"I'd like to tell the people of Alaska, the Blind Boys are on their way," he said. "When we you see you, Alaska will never be the same."

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Although he is well into his 80s, Carter still has a keen memory, recalling June 10, 1944, as the day the group hit the road to perform outside the school.

"The rest is history, my friend," he said.

Carter, the group's current leader, and Clarence Fountain, whose health no longer allows him to tour, are the only remaining members from the original seven.

Recent years have seen the Blind Boys exploring New Orleans jazz and country music and releasing "I'll Find A Way," produced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.

It's all part of God's plan for a group of sightless young men from rural Alabama, according to Carter.

"I think we were born to do this work," he said. "We were called to do it. It was a gift from God. When we started out, we said we would not deviate. We started singing gospel music and we've been doing that for all these years and we don't plan on doing anything else."

Blind Boys of Alabama: Hallelujah and amen!

Where: Hering Auditorium in Fairbanks

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

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Tickets: $22 to $42 at fairbanksconcert.org/tickets

Where: Atwood Concert Hall

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $32.50, $48, $53.75, $66 at alaskapac.centertix.net

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.

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