When a young man approached Blind Boys of Alabama singer Jimmy Carter after a recent performance, he assumed he was just another fan coming to say he loved the show. But the young man said he'd been preparing to commit suicide, and that The Blind Boys of Alabama had stopped him just short.
"He had purchased a CD of ours and said he had been thinking about playing it," Carter says. "I forget the name of the song, but it had ended up saving his life."
For more than 70 years, this revered gospel ensemble has been delivering exactly that sort of hope and perseverance, which they'll bring to Durham's Hayti Heritage Center—itself a former AME church—this weekend in advance of the release of their new album, I'll Find a Way.
In Durham, they'll be joined by Phil Cook, a Bull City resident best known for his role in folk explorers Megafaun. Cook served as musical director for I'll Find a Way, even laying down keyboards and guitar on most of its tracks. The album brims with special guest appearances, something of a trademark of the Blind Boys in recent years. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver produced the album and sings Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" as a duet with Carter. Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond takes the lead on the ethereal title track, while Patty Griffin anchors the record with a hootenanny of a tune called "Jubilee." Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Casey Dienel of White Hinterland and Sam Amidon cameo throughout I'll Find a Way, recorded in Vernon's home studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Cook admits to being a little intimidated by the historic group going into those sessions, but they immediately morphed into what he describes as "summer camp," despite a layer of snow outside Vernon's house. "The Blind Boys are full of life, jokes, stories and humility," he says from a tour in Scotland. "Seeing the respect they all have for Jimmy and watching his leadership style was wonderful. They'd get tired and hungry, and Jimmy would pull a great take out of them with just a few encouraging words."
Their cover of "Take Me to the Water," for instance, keyed on the newest Blind Boy, Paul Beasley, who had joined the ensemble just two days before they recorded the song.
"We decided to give Paul the lead, and the first few tries were fine but not what we wanted," Cook recounts. "Jimmy took the mic and simply said, 'We need you Paul. We need you.' I think Paul has so much respect for Jimmy that he needed his permission to really 'go there.' The next take is the one you hear on the record. It's raw. It's real. His fists were clenched in the air and his eyes closed so tight at the end. Every single person in the studio had tears streaming down their face."
The group's origin tale is the stuff of legend: Six boys, all around the age of 9, first sang together in the glee club at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega in 1939. They formed the Happy Land Jubilee Singers and developed a reputation for singing to Southern soldiers training for World War II. They became known as The Blind Boys of Alabama through a friendly rivalry with another gospel group of blind boys from Mississippi. Of the founding members, only Clarence Fountain is still alive, performing when his health allows. Carter is an original Blind Boy, but he wasn't part of the Happy Land Jubilee Singers.
The Boys started singing together the year Billie Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit," which recounts a lynching and was released as a 78-rpm record. In April 1939, Marian Anderson had to perform outdoors at the Lincoln Memorial because the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from singing in Washington D.C.'s Constitution Hall.
"We still talk about how times were back then," Carter recalls. "We started out in the South—you know how the South was in the '40s and '50s. But we survived all of that and we're still trudging along."
The Boys first recorded together in 1948 and toured throughout the 1950s as popular music began adding a black gospel edge. As soul and rhythm and blues labels wooed gospel acts to cross over into secular music, the Blind Boys kept to their traditional gospel songbook.
Carter cuts a belly laugh short. "We've had other opportunities. Sam Cooke sang with a gospel group, the Soul Stirrers, but he was off on another contract to do R&B," he says. "And we were there at the same time that they offered him to do that, and we had the same opportunity. We turned it down. Sam Cooke said 'I'll do it.'"
Fountain did leave the Blind Boys in 1969 to pursue such interests, but he returned a decade later. Meanwhile, the group lent their voices to the civil rights movement and backed popular acts on gospel tracks while cranking out albums of their own.Another kind of collaboration, with writer and director Lee Breuer of the Mabou Mines Theater Co., brought mainstream attention to the group. In his production The Gospel at Colonus, a Pentecostal version of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, Breuer cast the Blind Boys to collectively play Oedipus. After its 1983 premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, The Gospel at Colonus won the Obie for best musical and an Emmy for a PBS television program of the original production. It was nominated for both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
The Blind Boys subsequently became the go-to for gospel collaborators, even backing Peter Gabriel on Up and opening for him on a world tour. During the last two decades, they've sung with Vince Gill and Bonnie Raitt, Prince and Lou Reed.
For all their success—six Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award in 2009, among countless honors—the music has always come second to the message.
"We were determined to stick to our promise that we made when we started out that we were going to stick to gospel music," Carter says. "We were going to try to tell the world about Jesus Christ. We have a message that we'd like to give to the people. We'd like to give people hope and encouragement."
Perhaps nothing is more encouraging than Fountain's appearance on I'll Find a Way. He was too ill to travel to the Wisconsin sessions because of weekly kidney dialysis, so the crew recorded his vocals back in Birmingham and added them to the mix. That kind of historical connection speaks to the commitment that six boys made to one another all those years ago. Carter and his partners are on a mission.
"We sing to a lot of non-believers now. But, you know, we sing to them. We can plant a seed. We can't make it grow, but we can plant it," he says. "If they want it to grow, they can make it grow. But we can put it there."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sound vision."