Jimmy Carter, The Blind Boys of Alabama:
Gospel is Alive

Jimmy Carter -- not the former president -- is one happy man. When you speak to him, he laughs a lot, easily and deeply, seemingly amused by all the quirks of the world. He is one of the more open and welcoming people you'll encounter. From the moment you say hello to him on the phone, he calls you "My friend," and before your third question is out, you feel as if you're speaking to a man you've hung with all your life. You get the feeling that there are no strangers in Jimmy Carter's world.

When I got off the phone with him, his publicist emailed to ask how the conversation went. I thought a moment and replied, "You know, I had such a good time talking to him, I hope I got some useful information."

Who is Jimmy Carter? One of the premier gospel singers in the world, he's the last of the founding members of and the spokesman for the Blind Boys of Alabama, one of the great gospel quintets of our time, as well as one of the most honored. He has received lifetime-achievement awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. He's in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and has won five Grammy Awards for some of the 71 albums he has made.

Carter started his career early because his ambition in life, his direction, hit him early and stuck like butter to bread. All he ever wanted to do was sing gospel music and that's what he has done for better than 70 years. Now 84 years old, Carter began singing in 1936 in a group he formed at the Alabama Institute for the Blind in Talledega. He has never stopped. "We started out at the School for the Blind and decided we wanted to try to be professional gospel singers," he says. "We got our first professional job in 1944, singing on a radio station in Birmingham, Alabama."

His goal was simple and straightforward: to sing gospel music. "We weren't looking for accolades, awards or rewards. We just love singing gospel music and that's all we wanted to do."

As gospel music has grown and changed, becoming modernized and altering itself in an effort to win new and younger listeners, much of it has been jerked loose from its roots like a dead plant. I pointed out that I hear a lot of gospel songs that I don't recognize as gospel. It might as well be soul or pop, for all the spirit I hear in it. Carter agrees. "I don't know why that is. I don't know what it is. I hear a lot of music, I have a hard time finding the gospel in it. Maybe it's the DJs, maybe it's the radio stations, but a lot of music called gospel isn't." Whatever the prevailing styles, though, the Blind Boys have continued to go their own way, rooting their music firmly in the tradition, even as they experiment with it. No matter what the fashion of the day, the Blind Boys always sound like the Blind Boys.

Their music has always been guided by his definition of gospel, which he has repeated many times in many interviews over the 70-some years he has toiled in these vineyards. "Gospel music is the good news of God. It's the news that Jesus died so that we might live."

Carter has often said that the Blind Boys can find gospel in any song -- that, in a way, almost all songs are gospel songs, so that, as long as the material suits their style and needs, the group will take songs from many genres of music. "We'll accept songs from any writer, but it has to have gospel in it. If it doesn't, if we can't find the gospel, we'll change it, maybe change the lyrics. Sometimes you can change two or three lines in a secular song and make it into a viable gospel song." Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" is one song they had to work with. "We had to change some stuff in that one to make it into a Blind Boys gospel song."

Carter says the group has to be careful with its song choices because of the reasons they're out there recording and performing in the first place. They don't see their role as simply entertainers. "We're concerned with the message. Our aim is to touch lives. If we can touch somebody with a song we'll use it."

Why has the message always been so important in their music? Mostly, because of the circumstances under which the music was made. The formative years of their career, the first 20 or so years, was spent performing in the South during the Jim Crow era, a time of turmoil, strife and conflict for the African-American people who made up their audience back then. It was a time when hope was as easy to lose as car keys, a time when keeping your optimism was not easy and when a positive message could ease the tension the way Excedrin eases a headache.

"In the beginning, we could only sing for black folks. We went through the Civil Rights times, the Civil Rights movement." During the years of the movement, the Blind Boys participated in marches and demonstrations and sang benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King. With a chuckle, Carter says, "Those were trying years. We had us a mean old boy down here named Bull Connor who caused us some problems."

Carter will not speak badly of anyone so that's all he will say about Bull Connor, who, back in the early '60s, became an international symbol of southern racism. As the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham during the movement years, Connor enforced segregation laws with a disregard for individual rights that made Georgia's baseball bat-waving governor Lester Maddox look like the dad on The Brady Bunch. Connor turned firehoses on children and attack dogs on demonstrators, always careful to show a high regard for human dignity and life, as long as the life in question was white. Ironically, his actions served as the catalyst for changes for the better; when the excessive use of force that he delighted in using was seen on worldwide television, the revulsion people felt became a major factor in the passage of the civil rights act of 1964.

As a citizen of Birmingham, Carter was there during the Bull Connor years. As an African-American citizen, he felt the stings of segregation personally, but he has no bitterness. "As the years passed and the times changed," he says, "everything else changed, too." The positive takeaway? "Now we can sing for anybody. It's much better." He laughs again. "I'm an old country boy. I grew up in the South and I still love the South. I still live in Birmingham, Alabama."

The end of segregation brought new audiences, new opportunities. New doors opened for the Blind Boys and they walked through them happily, as long as they didn't have to alter their mission by passing through to new opportunities. In 1982, Lee Breuer, founder of an avant-garde theater company called Mabou Mines, and composer Bob Telson, whom Carter describes as "two white boys," came to the Blind Boys with an provocative notion. "They came up with the idea of doing a gospel version of Oedipus at Collonus. They wanted a gospel feel, a gospel flavor, so they got the Blind Boys, the Soul Stirrers and a choir (the Chancel Choir of the Abyssianian Baptist Church) and put it all together. We played off-Broadway, Broadway. We toured with it and even took it to Europe. We went to Paris, Austria." The Blind Boys stayed with the show off and on for 18 years. "The last venture was in 2000 or so, when we went to Greece."

That show "changed everything for us, got us a new audience. That play exposed the Blind Boys to a new and different audience. When we played on Broadway, we played to all types of people. That started it."

One of the things it started was the idea of Blind Boys recording with younger, secular musicians. Many members of the newer generation of soul, rock and blues players began to feel their resumes were not complete without recording with the Blind Boys. This was fine with the Blind Boys, who saw an opportunity to reach further into the pot and draw out another segment of the overall audience. Carter says the group hasn't altered their style or changed their music in any way to play and record with these younger and more diverse musicians. "Those boys love gospel music and they love the Blind Boys. When they work with us, we have the last say. They adapt their styles to ours. We love working with the younger people and they love working with us."

He says, "We are traditional gospel and we always will be traditional gospel, but gospel has many faces: traditional, contemporary, solo, group, choir. We want to incorporate all of that. That's why we collaborated with the younger artists, people like Ben Harper, and Peter Gabriel, John Hammond and Van Morrison. It used to be African-American music. Now it's anybody's music."

As much as he wants to incorporate all of the facets of gospel into their music, though, Jimmy insists that the Blind Boys are and always will be solidly traditional. He sees no conflict between, say, recording with blues harp master Charlie Musselwhite, acoustic blues musician John Hammond, folk-rocker Taj Mahal or progressive rock star Peter Gabriel, for whose record label they recorded. The core values of the Blind Boys, he says, remain intact.

What you have to realize is that for his success, Jimmy Carter is still a modest man. In fact, it can be frustrating interviewing him because he will not take personal credit for anything. Talking with him, you get the idea that no one was responsible for the Blind Boys' success -- it just happened, that a lifetime of dedication and hard work had nothing to do with it. Always, whatever happened was somebody else's idea. Asked about the play, he credits the producers Brewer and Telson without mentioning that since they got rave reviews and a whole new audience out of it, maybe the Blind Boys performance had something to do with the show's success. When I asked how they got hooked up with all of the younger artists they've been recording with, Jimmy says simply, "It was our manager's idea. He did it."

It's the same with their new album. Their second Christmas album, it turns traditional Christmas music on its head, makes the old songs sound new and fresh again. One factor in that is the arrangements, while another, more important factor was the decision to record it analog, live in the studio with the band playing and the singers performing at the same time, instead of the now more popular way of recording digitally, layering in one track at a time until you achieve what can be a soulless perfection. When I asked Jimmy about it, he did what he always does; he laughed a little and said, "That was the producer's idea. We just went along with him."

Carter thinks of him self as a simple man. He is a solid country music fan, claiming to listen to nothing else. "Not that stuff they play on the radio now," he says. "Can't listen to it, that isn't country music. Me, I love my country music, old classic country stuff. I got a satellite radio and they got a station that plays nothing but classic country music. I listen to it all the time. Soon as I get through talking to you, I'm going to put it on. My favorite singer was a guy that passed away not long ago, George Jones. I got to meet George in 2008. Always wanted to meet him. Finally got the chance. He was a nice guy, a real gentleman.

"My favorite living singer is Merle Haggard."

I mentioned that Simon Nicol from Fairport Convention once speculated that he couldn't see any reason why Fairport couldn't continue for another hundred years, long after the current members are gone, and asked if he could see the Bind Boys extending into the future like that. He answered by taking the question in a personal direction. "I'm not getting any younger," he said. "I hope to be able to continue on but there will be a time when I have to step down. When that happens I hope my coworkers will step up and continue on. I hope the group continues on. I'd like to see the legacy continue to grow."

What does he see in the future? "I don't know. I take life one day at a time, thank God for that. I hope someday somebody would do like the you in Vegas and set up a long term residency where we could sing four or five nights a week and not travel. It wouldn't have to be Vegas. They do that in other places now, like Branson, Missouri."

He reflects: "The traveling gets old. I love what I'm doing but I would like to be able to just relax and kick back and take it easy." He pauses, seeming to think about what he's saying, and then with a smile in his voice, he adds: "Not yet, but someday."

Whatever the future holds for Jimmy Carter and the Blind Boys of Alabama, though, he has no doubts that gospel music, despite all of the changes in the media, no matter what genre is taking its turn in the spotlight, no matter what the fads and trends, gospel music will continue to thrive.

As Ian Tyson said about folk music, "Folk music has always been there and always will be there. Sometimes its hard to find but it's there." Carter, it turns out, is an Ian Tyson fan. "Canadian boy," he says. "Real good singer." And he agrees with Tyson's assessment when it is applied to gospel.

"Gospel will be alive as long as God is alive."

interview by
Michael Scott Cain

3 January 2015

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