Of the grade-school students who started singing together in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind, only a couple are still alive. And just one of the founding members, Jimmy Carter, continues to tour with the Blind Boys of Alabama.
The group has performed for more than 75 years, meeting four presidents and playing the White House three times, and its acclaim has only grown in recent decades.
Just since the new millennium, for example, the group, which has sung with such artists as Prince, Lou Reed and Ben Harper, has won a handful of Grammys. Its 2013 album, “I’ll Find a Way,” was recorded with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver; “Talkin’ Christmas!” in 2014, with Taj Mahal.
The Blind Boys — Carter, Ben Moore, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Paul Beasley and Joey Williams — are returning to Washington this month with a show at the Howard Theatre. We spoke with Carter, 85, by phone from New York, where the group was recording, by some counts, its 61st studio album.
Q: How does it feel to be the last surviving Blind Boy of Alabama on the road?
A: Well, I love what I do. It’s a privilege for me to be around to do what I’m doing.
Q: Where did it all begin?
A: The Blind Boys of Alabama started out in a little town in Alabama called Talladega. This was the school for the blind, funded by the state of Alabama. All the blind children in Alabama came to that school. That’s how we met. We went up there and they had music, they had a choir and they had a male chorus. From that, the quartet came to be.
Q: Was there a tradition of male gospel groups at the time?
A: Our idol group was a male group called the Golden Gate Quartet. They were on the radio every day at 4 o’clock. . . . We didn’t have a radio at school, so we had to slip off and go to people’s houses.
We said to ourselves, ‘If the Golden Gate Quartet could make a living at it, why couldn’t we?’ . . . June 10, 1944, is when we made the first step. It started with a radio station broadcast in Birmingham, Ala., WSGN. It was a program on there called “Echoes of the South.” That’s when they would play the Golden Gate Quartet records. So they allowed the Blind Boys to come to that radio station that particular day, June the 10th, and do the first broadcast.
Q: At that moment you probably didn’t know you’d be doing it for the next 70 or so years.
A: No. Well, we said that we weren’t going to turn back. When we started out, we were determined to go as far as we could. We didn’t have no idea at all that we would reap what we did. We weren’t looking for that. All we wanted to do was to get out there and sing gospel music, and just tell the people about God. We weren’t looking for no accolades. Nothing like that. We were glad when we got them. But we weren’t looking for them.
Q: Did being blind prevent you from touring?
A: No. We had some dedicated people who could see back then. You have to have somebody who can see. You have to be realistic. There are some things that blind people, they need sighted folks to help them do. We realized that, so we tried to get the best we could and we got some really good sighted people during that time.
Q: What kinds of places did you play in the beginning, and what did you sing, songs everyone knew?
A: At that time, we were mostly playing churches, high school auditoriums, elementary school auditoriums. But mostly churches. Most of the songs that we sung, everybody knew them. They were standard songs. We just added the Blind Boys flavor to them.
Q: What was that flavor? What did you do to make these old songs your own?
A: We arranged them differently, and I have to say that we just put our hearts into it. We believed in giving out our souls to the people. That’s what we did. That’s what we tried to do anyway.
Q: How did Jim Crow-era discrimination affect you?
A: We were traveling about in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, so you know you had segregation at that time. But we were still determined to do what we set out to do. Sometimes after the program, you were hungry but you couldn’t eat. You couldn’t go to the restaurant because all of the black restaurants were closed, and the other restaurants wouldn’t let us come in. We would go stop by the grocery store and get some bologna and white bread and eat that. We were determined. We weren’t going to turn around.
Q: A lot of gospel people at that time were going into rock-and-roll and R&B.
A: That’s right. We were offered the same thing. Sam Cooke, when they offered him the rock-and-roll contract, we were all together in the same studio. They offered the Blind Boys the same deal they offered him. But we turned them down. We didn’t want that. We wanted to sing gospel. That’s all we wanted to do.
Q: Even so, later on you’d sing songs by people from the secular side.
A: Oh, my goodness, yes. We collaborated with many secular artists. But you always remember, if we couldn’t have a gospel sound or gospel lyrics or something pertaining to gospel, we didn’t fool with that.
Q: Did you ever have to change lyrics to accomplish that?
A: We had to sometime. We had to change lyrics to make it become a gospel song. Stevie Wonder had “Higher Ground.” We had to change the lyrics to that, to make it what we wanted it to be.
Q: A lot of people first heard you when your version of Tom Waits’s “Down in the Hole” became the theme to the HBO show “The Wire.”
A: It made a difference. A different audience. You know, when we got exposed to the mainstream of people, most of our audiences now are white. They knew about us, but they hadn’t heard us. Because we weren’t allowed to sing to them. But after we were permitted sing to them, we found out they wanted it all the time. We hardly ever sing to black folks now.
Q: Now you have these young artists such as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver who want to work with you.
A: We did that in the coldest month of the year, I guess, December, in Eau Claire, Wis. But Justin had a warm heart and a warm house. He had a studio in his house, so we went to his house and cut that album. Everything worked out good.
Q: Did he know a lot about gospel as well?
A: He did. He brought a lot of stuff to the table that we weren’t doing.
Q: What do you perform in your live shows now?
A: We have a variety. We have traditional, we have contemporary. We do it all. But it’s all gospel. That’s all it is. Nothing else.
Q: Are there certain songs you have to perform, that people will want to hear?
A: We got one, “Amazing Grace.” That’s our signature song. We do that on every show we have. People are looking for that.
Q: And that’s the one where you hold that note for a long time.
A: I still like to do it. I can’t hold it as long as I used to, now. I’m getting old. But I still hold it a pretty good little while.
The Blind Boys of Alabama March 24 at 8 p.m. at the Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW. Tickets: $35-$70. 202-803-2899. thehowardtheatre.com.