The Light Shines On
Seventy-four years ago, at the Institute For The Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama, a gospel group was formed, The Happyland Jubilee Singers, a clutch of nine-year-olds with a penchant for song, and a love of this old, old style of church music.
A few years went by, the group played their first professional gig in the early ‘40s, they changed their name to the Blind Boys Of Alabama, and the rest, as they say, is history. For now, almost eight decades down the track, the Blind Boys are one of the longest enduring musical groups in modern history, a gospel powerhouse whose shows are nothing short of ethereal, their vocal harmonies likely to melt even the stoniest of hearts.
One of those nine-year-olds, back in 1939, was one Jimmy Carter. Carter is still with the group today, and along with fellow founding member Clarence Fountain (who rarely performs with them these days, due to health reasons), is the only surviving original Blind Boy. Today, Carter is backed by Bishop Billy Bowers and Ben Moore, along with added vocals from guitarist Joey Williams and drummer Ricky McKinnie. Tracy Pierce brings the bass, and Peter Levin the organ. It’s a tight outfit, and despite the advanced ages of the singers – particularly Carter – they lose nothing. You’d almost lay some money on the fact they’d outperform Iggy pop. Almost.
And what’s kept them going all this time? The music itself, gospel music. “Yeah, gospel music is the kind of music that reaches to the heart of man, and we just try to sing the songs to make you feel good,” says drummer McKinnie, who most often speaks on behalf of the group, and who has been there since 1990. “That’s what we do – we try to make you feel glad, even if you feel sad.”
“Well, if you come and see the Blind Boys this time, you gonna see some new songs,” McKinnie relates when asked what they’re up to, on stage, at this point in their career. “And we’ve had a country record come out, it’s called Take The High Road (2011), we’ll sing some songs off that, we’ll sing some a capella songs… we just wanna have a great time.”
If you’ve ever seen the Blind Boys play, you know they have a good time – it’s all guitarist Williams can do to get Carter to sit down for a minute, such is his ebullience at performing in front of such adoring crowds. And that’s who they play for – I defy you to see them sing live, and not fall in love with them, their ethos, this divine music.
Gospel music is an extremely old form of music, its roots going back to the 19th century and beyond. It is, of course, earthed in the traditions of the church, and it most commonly these days, still retains those themes. It’s also a form of music that prominently features vocals, most often in harmony, and none (or very few) do it better than the Blind Boys. This has been recognised the world over, a fact highlighted by the amount of collaboration the group has done over the past two decades.
“Yeah, that’s right, we do a lot more collaborating these days, than before I joined,” explains McKinnie. “And it’s always good to know that people [enjoy] your music… and it’s also good to know that your music is still popular with the people. We’ve had the opportunity to work with Aaron Neville, Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt, Dr John, just so many great people.”
I feel it’d be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic There Will Be A Light record the group did with Ben Harper in 2004, which would have introduced the Blind Boys to an entirely new, younger, audience. “Yeah, that’s right,” concurs McKinnie. “We actually got the opportunity to do a couple of songs, and ended up doing a whole CD, and that was great, our hats are off to Ben Harper.”
Everyone else’s hats are off to the Blind Boys Of Alabama. That they have been able to move from a group of children, to the group the are today, spreading their song across generations, continents, races, religions and musical genres, speaks volumes for how important this group is to music today. And despite their ages, there’s no end in sight for these monsters of gospel music.
“Oh no, no end in sight,” McKinnie smiles. “We’ll continue to pray that people enjoy it, the Blind Boys and our music. We just wanna keep comin’, and as long as you want to hear us, we want to come there and sing for you.” Can’t get much better than that.
By Samuel J. Fell