Posted November 24, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

The Blind Boys of Alabama: Not nearly tired

Blind Boys of Alabama
Blind Boys of Alabama

On their cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” the Blind Boys of Alabama layer gospel vocals over a gritty guitar riff, putting their distinctive stamp on a tune about keeping the devil “way down in the hole.” The song, the theme to the HBO series The Wire, still finds its way into the band’s live sets. We think of the group, which first formed in 1944, as a true American institution. Acts such as Keb’ Mo’, Carly Simon, Warren Haynes and Vince Gill have collaborated with the band over the years. On its most recent album, last year’s Talkin’ Christmas!, the group offered up original Christmas tunes that benefited from a collaboration with Taj Mahal. Founder and singer Jimmy Carter phoned us from his Birmingham home to talk about the band’s storied career.

The group first came together as kids. Talk about the circumstances that brought you together?
We were young boys. We started out at a very young age. We had a school for the blind in a little town in Alabama called Talladega.  We all went up there. If the blind wanted an education, they had to come up there. We all lived there and started singing together. We found out we could get a group together and the rest is history.

Did you have a sense that you’d be together decades later?
No. We had no idea. When we hit the road, we wasn’t thinking about nothing like that. We just wanted to get out and sing gospel music. We weren’t concerned with getting all the accolades. We weren’t even looking for that.

You toured the South during the Jim Crow era. What was that experience like?
We knew what was going on. We knew what we needed to do and we did that. We were never harassed by that. We just did what we had to do, that’s all.

You blended early jubilee gospel with hard gospel. Explain that.
Gospel is divided into two segments—it’s jubilee and it’s soul gospel. Jubilee would be the equivalent to what rap is today. The only difference is that we were singing it and not talking it. And soul gospel is when your emotions come into play. You think about how good God has been to you and you put that into music.

There were other groups out at that time that did that. The Soul Stirrers and the Pilgrim Travelers. There was the Golden Gate Quartet. There was another blind group the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. They were out there too.

What role did the band have in the Civil Rights movement?
We were there, but we never did anything major. I never met Martin Luther King Jr. We sung at the rallies they had.

How and why did the band’s popularity decline?
It might have declined some but what brought it back was that we did a play called The Gospel at Colonus. It was a play concerning Oedipus. It was a Greek tragedy. We got that together and we took that play to Broadway. That’s when we really got exposed to all types of people. We could sing to all different types of people. That really was the turning point in the Blind Boys’ career. We had two people who were involved with it and they love the Blind Boys. They wanted to incorporate us and when they asked us if we wanted to do it, we told them, “Yeah.”

In 2001, you released Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, mixing traditional church tunes with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, and won the first of your various Grammy Awards.
Peter Gabriel is very nice. We would collaborate with just about anybody as long as we could deal with the music. You have to understand, even though we collaborated with many other people, we did not change our routine. We stuck to gospel music. That’s what we do. If the material didn’t have a gospel flavor to it, we couldn’t use that. It was a good experience. He was a very nice fella and he treated us good.

How did David Simon choose your cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” as the theme song for the first season of HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire?
I don’t know. We were just singing the song. It surprised us. I don’t know how it happened.

That was a great thing for the band.
That’s right. We do that when we perform on this tour. You’ll hear that one.

In 2013 you worked with Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) to release I’ll Find A Way. What was the experience of making that album like?
Our manager was behind that. He came to use one day and asked us if we wanted to do an album with Justin Vernon. I said, “Fine. Who is he?” After we met and got to talking and listened to his material, which was good, we did the recording at his house. He had a studio in his house in Wisconsin and we recorded in the bitter cold in November. You can imagine how cold it was, but he had a warm house so everything went well.

It was a collection of old tunes and new tunes.
He had some songs that we knew but we hadn’t done them. He brought them back to us. The song “I Shall Not Be Moved.” That’s an old hymn from the church. That song has been around for a long time. He brought that to us. He has some good stuff going on.

He knows a lot about gospel.
He does. We found that out too. He knows a lot about it.

Talk about your approach for your most recent album, Talkin’ Christmas!.
This is our second Christmas record [after 2003’s Go Tell It on the Mountain]. Our producer Chris Goldsmith, he was in charge of that. He wanted to do another one. We wanted to do it. And we wanted to do it too. We went to his house and started getting some songs together.

You worked with Taj Mahal. What was that like?
He is a great guitar player and singer and he’s a great musician. It was a privilege to have him on it.

Are you working on any new material?
We don’t have anything right now. We want to support the Christmas album. We did two Christmas songs with Neil Diamond on his Christmas album. We’ll see how that works out. That should be good.

What keeps the group going?
When people ask me that, I tell them it’s because we love what we do. When you love what you do, it keeps you motivated. When you hear that response from the crowd and know that they’ve been enjoying the music, it makes you want keep going.

Many people get tired after doing the same thing.
We’re not nearly tired. We really love it.

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Eddie’s Attic – Decatur, GA

Eddie’s Attic – Decatur, GA

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SFJAZZ Center – San Francisco, CA

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Acadiana Center For The Arts – Lafayette, LA



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].