The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Jimmy Carter

The last original member touring with the longtime gospel group talks about how their sound continues to help define decades-old gospel traditions.

With five Grammys and two Lifetime Achievement Awards, the Blind Boys of Alabama are gospel music living legends. The group's career spans more than 60 years, during which they've crossed multiple musical boundaries and collaborated with such artists as k.d. lang, Willie Nelson, Ben Harper and many others. They first sang together at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega in the late 1930s, toured the South during the Jim Crow era in the 1940s and 50s and provided a soundtrack to the civil rights movement. Octogenarian Jimmy Carter is the last original member still touring with the group, whose new CD is entitled "I'll Find a Way."

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Jimmy Carter is a founding member of The Blind Boys of Alabama, and the only one of the original group to still tour regularly. Over the course of seven decades now of performing and recording, they’ve won five Grammy awards. They’ve just released a new CD called “I’ll Find a Way.”

Let’s take a look at a clip of the group and their guest artist recording the title cut from the new disc.

[Clip]

Tavis: Jimmy Carter, good to have you back on the program, sir.

Jimmy Carter: Thank you, my friend, good to be here.

Tavis: Congratulations on the new project.

Carter: Thank you.

Tavis: Before I jump into this, my heart was broken when I discovered and realized that our good brother Clarence can no longer tour.

Carter: No.

Tavis: Clarence Fountain.

Carter: Yeah. Clarence has some health issues now. Every now and then he might come out to help with an album, but just touring, no, he doesn’t do that anymore.

Tavis: How many years would you guess that you and Clarence did this together on the road?

Carter: Oh, about 30 years. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s a long time to have your man standing right next to you.

Carter: That’s a long time, man.

Tavis: Yeah. How have you made the adjustment to not having him on the stage with you every day?

Carter: Well, when he passed me the torch, he said, “This is your group now.” He gave me some advice, of course. He said, “You got to be firm with them or they’ll walk all over you if you’re not.” (Laughter)

Tavis: You got to be firm with them, because they’ll walk on you.

Carter: Yeah.

Tavis: You a founding member. They can’t walk on a founding member, Jimmy Carter.

Carter: I don’t know. (Laughter)

Tavis: You never know, huh?

Carter: You never know.

Tavis: These youngsters trying to walk on the founder.

Carter: That’s right. (Laughter) Speaking of youngsters, when you first joined the group you were so young, in fact, that while you were part of the group your mama wouldn’t actually let you tour.

So you were part of the group, but you couldn’t actually tour with them. Is that true?

Carter: Yeah. When they left, when they left school in’ 44 they came to my house to pick me up, and my mom said, “No, you can’t have him. He’s too young. He’s not going.” So I had to catch up with them later on.

Tavis: How later was later on?

Carter: Pretty late. (Laughter)

Tavis: How did you process the fact that you were a part of this group – I know why your mama did it, but I also know what it feels like to be young and have your mama tell you you can’t do something you want to do? I got mad at my mom – I love her to death, but I got mad at her a whole bunch of times.

Carter: I did too.

Tavis: Yeah, you got mad at your mama too?

Carter: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. Tell me the story of how this was not the original name. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama that we know was not the name that you all started with. Somebody finally had the sense to change it to that name, because there was a group called The Blind Boys of Mississippi.

Carter: That’s right. See, what it was, it was two blind groups from Mississippi and Alabama. It started out practically at the same time. So The Blind Boys of Mississippi was from this school in Mississippi out of Jackson called Piney Wood.

Tavis: Piney Wood School. I’ve been there many times, yeah.

Carter: Oh yeah, that’s where they came from.

Tavis: Right.

Carter: And The Blind Boys of Alabama came from Talladega, Alabama. Now The Blind Boys of Mississippi, their actual name was the Jackson Harmoneers. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s actual name was The Happy Land Jubilee Singers.

So The Blind Boys of Alabama and Mississippi got the name, that’s another story. (Laughter)

Tavis: Can I just tell you though, with all due respect, whoever came up with the Happy Land Jubilee Singers – you know where I’m going, don’t you?

Carter: I don’t know, where?

Tavis: The Five Blind Boys of Alabama I think is a lot better than the Happy Land Jubilee Singers.

Carter: I think so too.

Tavis: Yeah, I’m glad y’all made that switch, man. (Laughter) As difficult as it was, because this is back in ’44 now, right?

Carter: Yeah.

Tavis: Back in 1944. So we all know too well the hell that Black people were enduring in Alabama and Mississippi -

Carter: In that time period.

Tavis: – in that era.

Carter: That’s right.

Tavis: So if it was bad for Black folk across the board, how much more difficult then was it trying to make your way in the world as a blind Black boy?

Carter: Well, we had setbacks. It was kind of hard to sing all night, and couldn’t find a decent place to eat.

Tavis: Right.

Carter: To living in run-down hotels or rooming houses.

Tavis: Right

Carter: But we were dedicated. We were, the Blind Boys were dedicated and determined to make this work. So no matter how great the difficulties were, they did not deviate. They stuck it out.

Tavis: How did you end up – I mean, if you can sing, you can sing, and I know how well you sing because I’ve been listening for years. So you could have sung in any other musical genre. But you have always been dedicated to this gospel music thing.

So give me some sense of how gospel music became your chosen genre, and why over the years or how over the years you have stayed so dedicated to that, even as your popularity has grown.

Carter: Well, I was brought up in a Christian environment. My parents were Christian people. We weren’t perfect, of course. Nobody is.

Tavis: Nobody is. (Laughter) Not around here, at least.

Carter: But we were, I was born in that kind of environment. When I got to the schools and found that there were other blind kids wanted to do the same thing, so we started singing together up there in the glee club, in the choir.

It just was something that we wanted to do. We wanted to get out and sing gospel, and just tell the world about God.

Tavis: There are a lot of people today, there are a lot of folk who are unafraid to do that, so there are a lot of people still singing about God. But we live in a world today where people are so politically correct that they don’t want to mention the name “God,” much less sing about God, much less do albums about God.

Yet it seems to me that The Blind Boys of Alabama have continued to do that and to do it well, even in a world where people oftentimes don’t want to hear about God.

Carter: Well, I’m going to tell you why I will never – I’m going to tell you one of the reasons why I’ll never deviate from talking about God. When I was a young boy, a very young boy – I’m not young anymore. (Laughter)

I used to ask God to let my mother live to see me get grown. Because I was blind, in the world by myself, making it the best way I could. So I asked him, I said, “Let my mother live to see me get grown.” He didn’t only do that. My mother just passed in 2009

Tavis: Just a few years ago.

Carter: She was 103.

Tavis: Oh – (laughter). I’d say the Lord answered your prayer, didn’t he?

Carter: Yes, sir. (Laughter) Can’t nobody tell me nothing about God.

Tavis: Yeah, can’t nobody tell you nothing about God. Yeah, I think he answered your prayer and then some. (Laughter)

Carter: And then some.

Tavis: See, the Bible I read says he gives us threescore and 10 years.

Carter: Ten years. He gave her more than that.

Tavis: That’s 70, so she got 103. She took somebody else’s time. A hundred – he answered your prayer.

Carter: Yeah.

Tavis: It leads me to ask, and of all the times we’ve talked over the years, Jimmy Carter, I have never asked you this, and I’m glad you told the story now about your prayer to God asking him to let your mother live to see you get grown. Did you ever ask God why you were born this way?

Carter: I did, I did.

Tavis: Oh, Lord.

Carter: And this is – he told me why, too. This is my calling. If I had been able to see, I wouldn’t be doing this, what I’m doing, and he knew that, see. So he said, no, I’m not going to give you your sight back. I have a work for you.

I have a job that I want you to do. So when I found that out, I never complained again. I’m not – I don’t mind being blind, it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m happy. I can do just about anything anybody else can do except see. F

Tavis: But what was the process, though? I love your honesty. What was the process, though, for you getting comfortable with that? So I know you prayed and you asked the Lord why you were born this way.

He gave you the answer, and he obviously gave you the right answer, and you’ve been working that thing out all these years, 70 years now of singing this good stuff. But how did you get comfortable with that?

Carter: Well, when you – I guess it just came from up above, from him. After he told me that, you he just gave me peace, man. I just felt peace. That’s all I can say.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not you and the other members of the group – I think of Brother Clarence, for example. Did you all have the sort of same experience? That is to say, did all of you – let me ask it this way.

The other brothers that were in the group when you first started, did they come to that kind of peace as easily as you did, or were there folk in the group who had a hard time with accepting the (unintelligible)?

Carter: No, I think not. I think every one of us, you know, found peace like that. We were having – the school that we went to, it wasn’t peaches and cream, now. It was really a pretty bad establishment at that time. Of course it’s 100 percent better now.

But even then we had so much fun together, man, singing together. So we all found peace about that.

Tavis: So when you say – I love your modesty, because when you say that the school you went to in Talladega wasn’t peaches and cream, the truth of the matter – let’s just put some more truth on the table here.

The truth of the matter is that there was a school in Alabama for the blind and there was a school in Alabama for the Black blind. (Laughter) So even back then, segregation and racism separate even blind people.

Carter: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: These folk can’t even see.

Carter: That’s right.

Tavis: They’re still wanting to keep them separate.

Carter: That’s correct, yeah.

Tavis: Isn’t that pretty sick, though>

Carter: (Laughter) Well, it’s past that now. They’re integrated now.

Tavis: Yeah.

Carter: It’s 100 percent better than what it was when I was up there.

Tavis: So what do you make of the fact that the Lord has so blessed you that you’re born blind in the South and you have been able, with this group, to travel the world spreading this good news. What do you make of that?

Carter: Well, I’m proud to be fortunate enough to have the privilege to do it, and it makes it all worthwhile when you see how you touch people’s lives. People come up to you and tell you, “You did something to me. You touched my heart.” All that, it makes it all worthwhile.

A lot of people think singing’s an easy job, but it’s not. You have to, sometimes you’ve got to travel 300 or 400 miles and sing the same night. That’s not easy. But we do it and we’re used to it and we don’t mind it. Well, I do mind it sometimes. (Laughter)

Tavis: But you still do it anyway.

Carter: I still do it anyway.

Tavis: After all these years, do you still feel that same kind of joy when people are touched by the music, or after you’ve done this for so long and you’ve received every honor and every accolade and you’ve traveled the world, do you ever get a little jaded, ever a little cynical? Or does it always bring you that same kind of joy to know that you’ve touched the lives of people?

Carter: I have not lost any of that. I still have the same joy. I have to be honest – I do get a little tired now sometimes because like I say, man, I’m an old guy now. But I can still what I want to do. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah. Oh, you can still do it, yeah. You can still do – you still got it.

Carter: I still got it.

Tavis: You still got it now, I’ll tell you, man. It’s on the record, and I’ve seen you in person so many times, I know you still got it. (Laughter) Since you raised that, Brother Jimmy, what do you make of the fact that after all these years you still have it where your voice is concerned.

Here’s an instrument that you’ve been using for 70 years now, and yet after 70 years of all the wear and the tear and all the travel around the world, 70 years later, this instrument is still holding up for you, and you’ve still got the pipes. How have you protected this instrument all these years?

Carter: Well, I don’t dissipate myself. I get my proper amount of rest. Now these old vocal cords have been so over-used now, so you can still tell that they still need a little rest. I have a little raspiness today. But I still – if I get warmed up, I could still do a song. (Laughter)

Tavis: See, I think that raspy works, man. I like raspy. But I hear you. If you get warmed up, you can work it out.

Carter: Oh, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: So these days, what does – since you went there, I’m going to follow you. What does warming up consist of for you? Just take me through a day. If you’re doing a show at night, what is your process for getting your stuff ready and warmed up for that night?

Carter: I get up about 10:00 in the morning. I get me a cup of coffee and get me some grits and eggs.

Tavis: Oh yeah, that’s it right there, man. I think it’s the grits and eggs. (Laughter) I think it’s the grits and eggs. Okay, go ahead, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

Carter: And then get me a few (makes noise), a few hollers, you know, open up.

Tavis: You just holler it out a little bit? (Laughter)

Carter: (Unintelligible) that gets it going.

Tavis: So just a couple of hollers is all it takes?

Carter: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s all.

Tavis: And you’re ready to go.

Carter: I’m ready to go. (Laughter)

Tavis: The group over the years, because of death and because of illness, we just talked about Brother Clarence earlier and his health challenges, the group over the years has changed. Tell me about the current iteration of The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Carter: Well, we had to make some changes. We have some guys now, we got – like I say, Clarence cannot go, and we just lost another one in July, Billy Bowers.

So we had to replace him. We got a new guy now, Paul Beasley.

Tavis: Yeah, nice voice.

Carter: Very nice voice.

Tavis: Yeah.

Carter: A lot of falsetto. He used to sing in a famous group out of Tyler, Texas, called the Gospel Keynotes. So we have him now, and he has added – as a matter of face, he took it to another level with his voice.

Tavis: That’s him on “Take Me to the Water.”

Carter: That’s him, yeah.

Tavis: Sh, man. Boy, he worked that thing out on “Take Me to the Water.”

Carter: Yes indeed, yes indeed. He’s a humble fellow and he just wants to learn our style, that’s all.

Tavis: When you say “learn your style,” how would you describe, with all these groups that we’ve heard over the years singing gospel music, how would you describe, Jimmy Carter, the song stylings of The Blind Boys of Alabama? What is that style?

Carter: All I can tell you about that is that The Blind Boys of Alabama is known as a traditional gospel singing group, and we don’t plan to deviate from that, even though sometimes we might seem that we have.

But we haven’t, and so that’s it. We just are a traditional gospel singing group, and our style is when people bring material to us, we look at it, we listen to it. If the style ain’t right, we give it back to them. (Laughter)

Tavis: But to your point though, and I think we’re all the better for it, you all have taken some risk over the years. You’ve tried some different things. I’m thinking of a conversation I had on this show one time with Ben Harper, who you guys did some stuff with.

Carter: Right, yeah.

Tavis: SO over the years, you guys have, you’ve done some, you’ve tried some different things out. You’ve worked with – there are a lot of collaborators on this project, for exactly, but you’ve collaborated with all different kinds of people. You’ve tried out different styles; you’ve gone some different directions. But to your point, you’ve never deviated from the gospel tradition.

Carter: That’s correct. We never did and we never will.

Tavis: And never will.

Carter: No.

Tavis: Yeah. How do you process that – and I want to phrase this the right way, because I don’t want to put you in your grave any time soon. (Laughter) But we’re all going to have to go that way.

Carter: One day.

Tavis: One day. We can’t get out of here alive.

Carter: Nope.

Tavis: I only know one person that came, went down, and came back up again. (Laughter) The rest of us going to go down, we’re going to stay down.

Carter: We’re going to stay there.

Tavis: Yeah. So we got to go that way, but what you have been able to do, though, speaking of these new members, Paul Beasley and others, what you’ve been able to do is to create an institution that is going to live beyond you.

When you first started, your mama wouldn’t even let you tour with the group because you were that young. But you’ve now put your imprint on something that’s going to live way after you.

There’ll be Blind Boys of Alabama singing with a different iteration. That’s got to make you feel good, that you’ve helped to create an institution that’s respected the world over.

Carter: Well that’s right, and I hope when I do have to step down – I hope it’s no time soon, but you never know. So I have some blind people that I can pass the torch to that I think will carry on.

You have Ricky McKinnon, Ben Moore, two great sings, and I said Paul Beasley. They are able to – I’m teaching them every day. I hope they’re learning from me.

Tavis: Oh, I’m sure they’re learning from you. If they’re being taught by you, they’re being taught by the best.

Let’s talk about this new project, “I’ll Find a Way.” After doing so many records over the years, how do you keep finding a way to put material out that’s good and different?

Carter: Well, this record here, Justin Vernon produced it, and when we didn’t – I went to a meeting with Justin, (unintelligible) introduced to him, and after we got to talking with him, and he had so many good ideas.

This record here is closer to our gospel roots than the previous other ones, because he went around and got stuff like “I Shall Not Be Moved” and “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There.”

Those are traditional gospel, and that’s what we’re known for. So he got all that, he brought all that back to us, and “Take Me to the Water,” all that stuff. Plus the new stuff – “I’ll Find a Way” with Shara Worden, and that’s a – so when he introduced this stuff to us and we listened to it, everything just clicked, man. It just fell right in.

Tavis: It just fell right in.

Carter: Yeah.

Tavis: I mentioned earlier, you mentioned a couple of them already, but you’ve got some collaborators on here. Patty Griffin’s on this project.

Carter: Patty Griffin’s on there, yeah. She sang “Jubilee” and we did something with her. We did something with Shara Worden, in Australia, so we knew her, and Patty. And the other (unintelligible). Patty is a good friend of Robert Plant, you know?

Tavis: Oh, absolutely. A very good friend.

Carter: A very good.

Tavis: A very good friend of Robert Plant.

Carter: A very good friend of Robert Plant’s.

Tavis: Yeah, we’ll leave that right where it is. She’s a very close friend of Robert Plant. And Robert Plant’s about as good as they come.

Carter: Yeah, (unintelligible).

Tavis: It’s a beautiful thing, though, to have people who want to work with you.

Carter: It is, it is. All these people, all these people, we didn’t even realize that we had so many fans that had been listening to The Blind Boys all this time, and they found it a privilege to work with us.

Tavis: They do indeed.

Carter: And we find it the same way.

Tavis: It’s that soul and it’s that spirit.

Carter: That’s right.

Tavis: They want some of that. (Laughter) They want some of that Blind Boys of Alabama soul I am always honored to have you on this program.

Carter: Thank you, my friend.

Tavis: When you talk to Brother Clarence, give him my regards.

Carter: I sure will.

Tavis: Give my love more than my regards. I love him.

Carter: I shall, I shall, I shall.

Tavis: The new project from The Blind Boys of Alabama is called “I’ll Find a Way.” Jimmy Carter, the last original member who still travels with the band everywhere they go, even when he’s tired. If you hear him in the hotel getting a couple of yells out, that just means he’s getting ready for the show that night. (Laughter) Just getting warmed up. Jimmy Carter, I love you.

Carter: Thank you, my friend. Thank you very much.

Tavis: Good to have you on the program. Good to see you. Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

[Clip]

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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  • April

    What channel is your show on, in Philly with Direct T.V.? Also if you get this on time please tell Mr Jimmy that his folks in Colorado, Darryl Wells and his wife April say hello and he looks great.

    Much love Mr Jimmy

Last modified: October 11, 2013 at 11:28 am