After stirring up folks in spiritual venues for decades, it looked like the Blind Boys of Alabama were having a challenge at the Birchmere Thursday night. As they opened with a medley of selections, even “Amazing Grace” only produced polite smiles from the several hundred people gathered around tables.
But after earning five Grammy awards, Jimmy Carter, 78, the last standing original member of the legendary gospel quartet wasn’t about to play second fiddle to buffalo wings and other food items being served at the music hall in Alexandria.
After being helped off the stage, Carter grabbed a cordless microphone and worked the crowd like a gospel preacher that wouldn’t quit. He literally played tug of war with the group’s manager and the crowd rose from their chairs and started stomping their feet as Carter whaled “I feel the fire! Like Jeremiah!”
Founded in 1939 with singers from the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, the group joined other groups like the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Gospel Keynotes and the Sensational Nightingales, to become musical ambassadors who barnstormed across the country, sporting colorful suits and street corner harmony. And during segregation, groups like the Blind Boys had to also deal with potential peril every time they stopped for gas, wanted something to eat or needed a place to sleep for the night. Ironically, today, the group often sings for more majority white audiences than African Americans.
“When we started out we couldn’t sing for the white folk, but now we can,” Carter said in an interview. “We found out that we could sing to them and then we found out they were with us all the time we just couldn’t give it to them.
In the 1960’s the group was a big attraction in many spiritual venues including for fundraisers for Martin Luther King Jr. On Thursday, Carter mentioned King by name before launching into a foot-stomp song adapted directly from King: “Free At last, Thank God A Mighty I’m Free At Last.”
In many ways, the group has blazed its own trail of racial inclusion. Its new album, “Take the High Road,” is a collaborative effort members call “country gospel,” that features a number of country artists. The album’s title track “Take the High Road,” features the Oak Ridge Boys; “I Was Burdened,” features Lee Ann Womack; Willie Nelson pitches in with “Family Bible,” and Hank Williams Jr. sings a remake of an old country gospel tune “I Saw The Light.”
At the Birchmere, the Blind Boys concluded with “I Saw the Light.” One had to wonder if the Lord was somewhere tapping his toes.