In American musical circles, the Blind Boys of Alabama have become such a fixture on the scene that we might take for granted the long and winding road of their legacy. For decades, this cherished group-formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind-was well-known in the thriving subculture of gospel music. But then the attention they received expanded exponentially when they were championed by Peter Gabriel and his Real World enterprise. They took to the wider festival and concert circuit, and no longer released albums as the Five Blind Boys, but rather simply as the Blind Boys, after some of the original members passed on.
Thankfully, the Blind Boys have become regular visitors to Santa Barbara. Their Campbell Hall show on Sunday, part of their now annual Christmas tour-which was spawned by the release of their Christmas album, Go Tell It On the Mountain-will be their third visit in the past five years. Expect not only seasonal treats but also other music in the line of gospel, including songs from their brand-new album, Down in New Orleans (Time Life).
Veteran member Jimmy Carter, ever an affable sort, spoke with me recently on his cell phone from the road. Identification tip: Carter’s the one with the irrepressible spirit and the persistent urge to merge with the crowd.
Where are you at the moment? Right now, I’m on a tour bus on my way to Charleston, West Virginia. We have a show here on Tuesday night. We played in State College, Pennsylvania, last night. We got on the bus today, and we’re on way to our Charleston.
How do you like the whole traveling part of the musical life? I love traveling. It gets kinda hectic sometimes, because I’m not a spring chicken anymore, but still, I’m used to it, so I can handle it (laughs).
You just made your Grand Ole Opry debut recently. How was that experience? It was a day that I will never forget, because I’m a country music fan anyway. I went up there and got a chance to meet some of my country music heroes. I had a ball up there.
Were you a fan of the Grand Ole Opry as a kid? I was. I used to listen to it every week way, way, way back. It used to come on every Saturday night. It comes on three times a week now, but back then, it just came on once a week. I wouldn’t miss it.
Back in the early days, radio had a big influence in terms of reaching across racial and cultural lines, didn’t it? Well, I don’t know that it crossed racial lines or not. But you listened to radio because you didn’t have TV at that time. Radio was all you had to listen to. I love radio today. I’m not a TV guy; I’m a radio guy. I watch TV, true enough, but I love radio. I have my XM Satellite, my Sirius Satellite. I have both of them, so I can get just about anything I want (laughs).
And without commercials. Without commercials; that’s right.
I’m thinking about the ability of radio to reach out across the airwaves, regardless of social barriers. People in black areas could hear white music, and vice versa. We think of Ray Charles and the way he naturally included both R&B and country music in his work. That’s true. We had radio stations that played white music and, like you say, black music, too. We had people like Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, and Nat King Cole. The white stations would play their music.
Another name, with relevance to your roots, is Mahalia Jackson, who reached a wide audience. What was your connection with her? Mahalia Jackson was a great gospel singer. We grew up with her. We did shows with her during her tenure. She was a great, great singer. Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Edna Gallmon Cooke: All those people were great, great artists.
For decades before breaking out into a wider sphere of public recognition, your group was well-known in the gospel world. Is that right? We were known primarily in the black gospel world. We didn’t get exposed in the mainstream until way late in life. But we finally got over there, and ever since we did, we’ve been having a good time (laughs). It took a long time, but my philosophy is better late than never (laughs).
You keep making fresh, interesting albums, like this new one, Down in New Orleans, recorded in that city with the help of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Allen Toussaint, and others. It’s an interesting album. We’ve never had a band like that to back us up. It’s good, and it’s unique. After listening to it, I think it’s gonna be a pretty good CD. What’s your favorite?
Well, I love “Free At Last,” and the version of “Down by the Riverside” is great. Your blend of gospel and New Orleans is so natural. They go together nicely and easily. Yeah, we were focused on the New Orleans sound. That’s why we went down to New Orleans to cut the record-to get the real New Orleans sound, the real flavor of it.
On this album, you also pay tribute to Mahalia Jackson. Yeah, we did. She was from New Orleans, which I didn’t know beforehand. I found that out. We did that song, “My Living Will Not Be in Vain.” She made a great record of that. She beat singing it, but I did the best I could (laughs).
Is there a strong contemporary gospel scene at the moment, below the radar of commercial music? In gospel, there’s traditional gospel, contemporary gospel music, and I think the contemporary gospel has its own world going on. Personally, and there is no (criticism) intended, I’m not a big fan of contemporary, although we do it, because you have to change with the times. A lot of people love the contemporary gospel.
We can sing to all peoples, so we do contemporary, but our main focus is on traditional, because that’s what we were brought up on. That’s what we’re used to doing. Having said that, though, we can sing contemporary and we have that in our repertoire. We sing all types of gospel music.
Gospel music really is in the blood of American music, almost everywhere you look-country, soul, rock and roll : Yeah, I think gospel is a source for all of that. It will never die. A lot of these guys who record have roots in gospel. Take guys like Ben Harper. His roots are in gospel. A lot of the country music guys came out of the church, too. They sang in choirs and stuff. Like you say, gospel is everywhere you look.
The Blind Boys of Alabama will be at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Sunday, December 16, at 7 p.m. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.