Throughout the 1940s and '50s, The Blind Boys of Alabama recorded a string of electrifying gospel roots classics. If their recording career had stopped at that point, the strength of those influential early recordings would've been enough to permanently etch the group's place in American music history.
But the Blind Boys have soldiered on, continually building on their seventy-year artistic legacy. In more recent years the Blind Boys have picked up five Grammy awards and collaborated with a wide range of artists - from Lou Reed to Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
On April 13 at Butler's Schrott Center for the Arts, the Blind Boys will be reunited with one of their recent collaborators as the group splits a bill with Shara Worden and My Brightest Diamond. Worden was a featured vocalist on the Blind Boys 2013 release I'll Find A Way.
I spoke with Blind Boys founding member Jimmy Carter and My Brightest Diamond vocalist Shara Worden in advance of their Indianapolis appearance.
Jimmy Carter of The Blind Boys of Alabama
NUVO: Do you remember what inspired you to start singing as a child?
Jimmy Carter: I started singing when I was very young at five or six years old. I was brought up in a Christian environment and I listened to the church music. I think my real answer is God gave me the gift to sing. I was chosen by him to sing.
NUVO: When did you realize that?
Carter: At a very young age when they sent me to a school for the blind in a little town in Alabama called Talladega. While I was there I met some other boys who were singing and we started working together. At that time there was a gospel group on the road called the Golden Gate Quartet. We idolized those guys. We thought if they made it maybe we could too. So in 1944 the Blind Boys of Alabama left school and decided to try their luck. The rest is history, my friend.
NUVO: During the 50s and 60s so many artists like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin were coming out of the gospel scene and crossing over into rock and R&B. Were the Blind Boys ever tempted to move into secular pop music?
Carter: When Sam Cooke crossed over the Blind Boys were there at the same time in the same studio. On that same day they talked to us too, they wanted the Blind Boys to crossover. We told them no because we felt this is our calling and our mission. It was easy for us to say no because we felt God gave us this mission to perform for him.
NUVO: I grew up in the 90s. I was mostly exposed to rock and hip-hop, but I remember the first time I heard one of your early recordings with the Blind Boys. The energy in the music was like nothing else I'd ever heard. The sound was so powerful, I really felt like I'd been struck by a bolt of lightning when I heard your music. How do you manifest that energy in the music?
Carter: Gospel music is very intense. You're talking about God, you're happy and you want that to resonate to your audience. Sometimes it gets loud and it is intense. But that's alright because it is has to be that way because God is powerful and he's everywhere and you want to let people know.
When I go out on the stage I tell people that I hope we can sing or say something that will make you feel good. We're trying to give the people what we feel. Everything we do comes form the heart. We're not faking anything and there's nothing artificial about what we do.
NUVO: When I listen to a great gospel singer perform it almost feels like they've gone into a trance or that they're not in this world when they're in that performance. What goes on in your mind in those moments?
Carter: You are exactly right, my friend. When the Blind Boys go onstage. Jimmy Carter is not Jimmy Carter at that time. He's not there. He's been overtaken by a higher power and it stays with him until he finishes.
NUVO: Is it easy for you to get in that state of mind when you hit the stage? I would imagine it takes a lot of energy to perform at that level.
Carter: You're first order of business onstage is to feel out the audience. I tell people that the Blind Boys do not like to sing to a conservative crowd. That means wake up and don't be so sophisticated. Let your hair down, we came out to have a good time. We don't want nobody sitting there, we want to make you move. Clap your hands, stomp your feet and jump up if you want to. That's what we're all about, my friend.
Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond
NUVO: What prompted your collaboration with The Blind Boys of Alabama?
Shara Worden: The first time I met the Blind Boys of Alabama was in Sydney, Australia at the Vivid Live Festival curated by Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. We met there and I did several songs with them.
Separately from that, I know Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and he was producing their last record. He reached out to me to sing on the album. It felt really good for all of us because we'd had a good experience working in Sydney.
NUVO: As a musician was it easy for you to adapt to the Blind Boys style?
Worden: I grew up in a Pentecostal church. My grandfather was an Assemblies of God preacher for over fifty years. I grew up very much with gospel music in my culture. At the same time I was extremely influenced by American soul music.
But approaching the project I was very trepidatious about the overuse of melisma. I was quite cautious about that and went into the performance being conservative about my stylistic approach. But it just became necessary that my performance go somewhere else and become more intense emotionally. Eventually I started doing vocal runs when it seemed necessary to do it. Finally Jimmy said to me "girl we didn't really know if you could sing. But you did alright."
I'm really careful about walking into that dynamic. It's a big subject for me when you talk about adopting a musical style, it should come from a very authentic place. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. If doesn't have intention, at the end of the day it just sounds like you're copping someone else's style. It's a delicate subject for me.
NUVO: Will there be any musical collaboration with you and the Blind Boys at your upcoming concert together?
Worden: Yes, I'm going to jump in and sing several songs with the Blind Boys and I'm gonna sing the hell out of some melismas - I hope (laughs.) I'm going to close my eyes and sing with as much feeling as I can muster.
This week's Cultural Manifesto podcast features audio clips from my interviews with Jimmy Carter of The Blind Boys of Alabama and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond.
1. Blind Boys of Alabama - I'll Fly Away
2. Jimmy Carter interview "I started singing when I was young"
3. Blind Boys of Alabama - Marching up to Zion
4. Jimmy Carter interview "chosen to sing"
5. Blind Boys of Alabama - Swingin' on the Golden Gate
6. Jimmy Carter interview "manifesting energy"
7. Blind Boys of Alabama - I'm on the Battlefield
8. Jimmy Carter interview "taken over by a higher power"
9. Blind Boys of Alabama - Old Time Religion
10. Blind Boys of Alabama - You Got to Move
11. Jimmy Carter interview "we want to make you move"
12. Blind Boys of Alabama - This May be the Last Time
13. Blind Boys of Alabama - Fix it Jesus
14. Jimmy Carter interview "crossing over"
15. Blind Boys of Alabama - Satisfied With Jesus
16. Blind Boys of Alabama - Just Wanna See His Face
17. Jimmy Carter interview "contemporary songwriters"
18. Blind Boys of Alabama - Higher Ground
19. Jimmy Carter interview "better late than never"
20. Blind Boys of Alabama - Way Down in the Hole
21. Blind Boys of Alabama feat. Tom Waits - Go Tell it on the Mountain
22. Blind Boys of Alabama - Jesus Gonna Be Here
23. Jimmy Carter interview "on singing with Shara"
24. Blind Boys of Alabama feat. Shara Worden - I'll Find A Way (To Carry it All)
25. Shara Worden interview "on working with the Blind Boys"
26. Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama - Satisfied Mind
27. Shara Worden interview "cautious of melisma"
28. Blind Boys of Alabama - Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There
29. Shara Worden interview "singing together in Indy"
30. Blind Boys of Alabama - Run On For A Long Time
31. Shara Worden interview "goodbyes"
32. Blind Boys of Alabama - Amazing Grace