Jimmy Carter is the oldest member of the Blind Boys of Alabama, five-time Grammy winners and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winners. He sang with the original group, including Clarence Fountain back in the 1940s when they were at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, but was too young to go touring with them at the beginning. After singing with the Dixieland Blind Boys and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, he eventually officially joined The Blind Boys of Alabama and has been singing with them for forty years.
From the 1980s on, The Blind Boys were able to widen their audience beyond just the black community and have enjoyed tremendous success. After their 2000 Spirit of the Century album which mixed traditional church material with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, and which won the first of their Grammy Awards, the group has gone on to stellar success, becoming living legends in the world of gospel and roots music. In many ways, they have defined 21st century gospel.
Over the past 20 years, the Blind Boys of Alabama have worked with the likes of Ben Harper, Robert Randolph, Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal, Ruthie Foster, Bon Iver, Paul Thorn and Marc Cohn. The list goes on. Everybody, it seems, wants to perform and record with them.
Rolling Stone Magazine has called the Blind Boys of Alabama “gospel titans” and The New Yorker simply said they were “legendary.” Few would disagree.
I got the opportunity to chat to Jimmy Carter aka The Jimster for Down at the Crossroads. It was an incredible privilege to talk to a man who has gone through as much as he has, has achieved so much and is one of the most positive, cheerful people you could meet.
I asked him first of all about the Blind Boys’ 2017 album Almost Home, which was originally released by Amazon, but is now being made available to all digital music platforms for the first time in a couple of months’ time. It’s a wonderful album of mostly original songs which chronicle the lives of Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter. The song-writing (by the likes of the North Mississippi Allstars, Phil Cook, John Leventhal, Marc Cohn, and Ruthie Foster) is superb, the arrangements terrific and the Blind Boys’ singing characteristically wonderful. It’s an album I return to again and again.
Jimmy told me that the album is about the life he and Clarence had growing up. “Yes,” he said, “it talks about the early times of the Blind Boys. It talks about how we went to school and all that. It’s kinda like a little scene of history, you know.”
Jimmy went on to talk about Let My Mother Live, an incredibly moving and very personal song.
“Yeah, that’s a song that came straight from me. When I went to school, I was only seven years old, and I was blind. So, you can picture a seven-year old boy put in a school where he’d never been before; he knows nobody there. And I used to pray every night, oh God, let my mother live till I get through this. And he let her live until she got a hundred and three years old!
He did that for me and that’s why I love God. Everybody got their own opinion about him, but for me, I’m gonna serve him till I die.”
I asked Jimmy to tell me a bit about what he remembered about growing up as a boy in Alabama. He told me,
“When I went to school, it wasn’t a school that you’d come home every day from. We had to stay there for nine months at a time. We went to school in September and only came home in May, apart from the Christmas holidays.” It was here Jimmy first started singing in choirs.
“Yeah, I went up there and I met all the rest of the Blind Boys, and we started singing together. We had a choir, and a male chorus and we had a quartet. And the rest of it is history, my friend!”
I wondered about his visual impairment and how that has affected him and his music over the years. Jimmy was more concerned to talk about his calling to sing for the Lord.
“Well, you know,” he said, “when we started out, we didn’t sing because we wanted to be well known or famous. We weren’t thinking about that; all we wanted to do was to get out there and sing and tell the world about Jesus Christ. We weren’t thinking about no accolades or nothing like that. Because that’s what God wanted us to do.
“So, we have been blessed, we won five Grammys, we won a national Achievement Award, and God’s been good to us.”
The first song on Almost Home is the joyous Stay On the Gospel Side – “I started singing for the Lord and I ain’t finished yet.” Despite many offers to cross over and record secular songs, The Blind Boys have remained true all these years to their original calling.
“That’s right! There were a lot of them that did not stay on the gospel side. But we did. Because when we started out, we promised the Lord that we would stay on the gospel side, no matter what. And we did that. Although it gets hard sometimes, but, you know, God takes care of his own. We’re alright.”
I said to Jimmy, “Well, tell me this, when you talk about gospel music, some people think gospel music is just all about the music, but in your gospel music, it’s about the message as well, isn’t it?”
Jimmy agreed. “We have a message. Gospel is not just music, it also has a message. Somebody might say, tell me, what is gospel? When they ask me that, I say that gospel is the good news of God. That’s what gospel is.”
Jimmy Carter comes across as an incredibly positive person. My chat with him was punctuated with frequent chuckles and smiles I could hear over the phone. He told me:
“Yeah, well, you know, I’ve had my difficulties, I’ve had my setbacks, I’ve been taken advantage of at times, But it takes all of that for us to go through what we need to go through. People say, you aren’t doing anything but singing, but they just don’t know what we have to go through. We love what we do, that’s what keeps us going so much, because when you love what you do, it keeps you motivated. But it’s not easy, we have to go through a lot of difficulties.
“But by the grace of God, we’ve gone through that, and we’re still going through that, and we’re gonna stick it out until the end!”
What a fantastic attitude. I then wondered about what keeps Jimmy going, what it is about performing that has enabled him to keep on well past the time that a lot of artists might have stopped.
“I just love to go out on that stage and hear the audience respond to the Blind Boys. We go out there and say, well here we are, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and I say, I hope that we can say something or sing something that will lift you up and make you feel good. When you come to a concert of the Blind Boys, we don’t like for you to go the same way you came. We want to give you a message. When you leave us, we want you to feel differently about life.”
Despite his age and his visual impairment, Jimmy Carter frequently comes off the stage during concerts and delights audience by coming to sing right down amongst them. “Oh, I love to do that!” he said laughing.
I asked him about the Blind Boys being invited on several occasions to the White House. “Three times!” Jimmy said proudly. And what was it like singing for President Obama?
“Well, it was kinda special because he was a black president and I thought I would never see that in my lifetime. But I’ve seen it, and I’m grateful for that. We’ve sung for President Obama, for President Clinton and President Bush, and all three of them were extremely nice to us.”
The band played Free At Last at the White House on February 9, 2010.
That made me ask about his experience of the many changes in race relations in America. The Blind Boys of Alabama toured throughout the South during the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 1950s and were a part of the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement. And on Almost Home, they cover the North Mississippi Allstars’ Pray for Peace, which laments the changes which still need to come in the United States: “I think our grandmother would be heartbroken / To see their children’s children right back where we started.”
Jimmy said, “You know, when we started out, the South was segregated and we weren’t allowed to sing for nobody but our people. We did not know that the white people wanted the Blind Boys before we got over there. We just wasn’t allowed to give it to them. But they loved our music, and as time went on, and we got a chance to give it to them, they accepted it, they’re still accepting it, and everywhere we go we have people who come up and tell us how they have enjoyed our performances. And that’s what we like to hear!”
I just had to ask him about Amazing Grace, which the Blind Boys sign to the tune of House of the Rising Sun. I’d heard it was his favourite song.
“Yes it is. We sing that song every night. The reason why it’s my favourite song is, if it wasn’t for His amazing grace, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
So how much longer does Jimmy Carter intend to keep on singing for the Lord?
“Oh, well, it won’t be too much longer, because I’m no spring chicken [laughs]. I’m gonna have to think about retiring pretty soon! But there are two or three things I wanna do before I step down!”
He then proceeded to tell me how he intended to come back to Ireland to sing for us. Sing on Jimmy Carter, we’ve loved everything the Blind Boys of Alabama have done, and we never want you to stop.