The Last Man Standing
The new Blind Boys of Alabama album marks the final song from Jimmy Carter, who was there eight decades ago, when it all began.
In this humble home lives a humble man—ninety-one years old and blind since birth.
A caretaker lovingly tends to him as he sits down in a comfy chair—the kind you’d want to burrow into when you turn ninety-one—in the small living room of a clapboard house in the West End neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. He is completely bald. If he’s getting ready to go outside, he puts on a flat cap with his nickname—Jimster—embroidered just above the bill. He likes to talk about his faith in God.
“As I've gone through life, I’ve learned something about God,” he tells me. “You don't question Him because He’s not going to make no mistakes. So you have to trust Him, by faith. And that’s what I do.”
He’s held onto that faith, without question, since he was young enough to remember anything. God came to him, he says, when he most needed Him, when Jimster was the youngest of six boys born to an iron miner named Major Carter and his wife Cassie Belle.
“Were any of your brothers born blind, too?” I ask him.
“No,” he says. “Nobody but me.”
“Nobody but you?”
“That’s right. That’s why me and God had a talk. I wanted to know, why me? It was six of us; why did it have to be me?”
“Well, that was one of the things I wanted to ask you: did you ever wonder when you were a child why blindness had come to you?”
“I prayed, ‘Give me my sight.’ He wouldn’t do it. But He put me out on the road so I could deal with it.”
“I did, sure,” he says. “And I asked Him. I prayed, ‘Give me my sight.’ He wouldn’t do it. But He put me out on the road so I could deal with it. And that’s why I know that He called me to do this work that I’m doing. He called me to do it.”
His work is to sing. He’s been doing that job since he was five years old. You might have heard of his group: the Blind Boys of Alabama, who this year celebrate their eighty-fourth year of existence. They have won six Grammy Awards. They are members of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. And they hold the National Heritage Fellowship, which the National Endowment for the Arts gives annually to master folk and traditional artists.
For forty-one of the Blind Boys’ years, Jimmy Carter’s distinctive voice has stood at the forefront of their recordings and performances. He is their oldest living member. Two weeks from now, a new album called Echoes of the South will hit the stores.
It will be the last Blind Boys album of Jimmy Carter’s long and storied career as the leader of one of the South’s—and the nation’s—most beloved musical groups.
Jimmy Carter is the only blind man I’ve ever seen run.
It was on June 29, 2002, at a beautiful Atlanta venue today known as the Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park. Cut into a hillside, the theater has a section of tables for six down front, directly in front of the stage, where annual subscribers usually set up elaborate picnics. A horseshoe-shaped aisle travels from stage right to stage left, encircling those tables. Beyond that aisle, the six-thousand or so other spectators sit in bleachers that climb the hillside, up to a lawn—the cheap seats—at the very top.
When you see the Blind Boys perform, you witness their longtime road manager, a sighted man named Chuck Shivers, lead the group’s members, dressed impeccably in identical suits and ties, onto the stage, each man’s right hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. On the night in question, I saw Shivers—right in the middle of the uptempo call-and-response “Look Where He Brought Me From”—lead Carter down a small flight of steps off the stage and into that aisle.
Jimmy’s right hand was locked onto Chuck’s shoulder when he broke into a brisk trot, Jimmy following him, microphone in hand, singing every step.
Brought me out of darkness into the marvelous light! Look where he brought me from!
Sometimes, Jimmy would break free and run a few steps on his own, and Chuck would catch up and grab hold again. All along that aisle, Jimmy exhorted the assembled thousands to sing along.
They joined in the response, row after row of people joyously braying, Look where he brought me from!
Those folks, with their drinks and their fancy picnic baskets, probably didn’t expect to wind up in church that balmy night. But that’s exactly where they were. That’s what happens. You know. When the spirit moves. One never knows when the spirit will decide to move. But you know the odds are good if you are around someone who is gifted enough to bring it down.
Jimmy Carter is a small man, but when he calls down the spirit, he is a mountain. Jimmy Carter is a blind man who has never seen that marvelous light, but in his heart, it is brighter even than the sun.
When the Blind Boys of Alabama came together in 1939, they were called by another name—the Happy Land Jubilee Singers. All of them were students at what was then called the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind in Talladega.
That same year, a seven-year-old Jimmy Carter arrived at the Institute. Until then, Major and Cassie Carter kept their youngest at home in Ishkooda, a neighborhood in southwest Birmingham that was, ninety years ago, a mining community. Major worked as a miner for the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company. The Carters never knew a school for the blind was only an hour away in Talladega until a friend of Cassie’s told her about it. Jimmy does not remember that woman’s name, but he does remember her driving him and his mother to Talladega to enroll him in the school.
“Man, I felt like the world had come to an end,” Jimmy says. His voice is quiet, with a slight rasp I’ve never heard in his singing. “This lady told my mother, ‘You ought to take Jimmy up there. That would be good for him.’ So they got together [and] drove me up to school and left me. I found out later on that my mom said she started to turn around and come back and get me, but she didn’t.”
Being away from home hurt. “I cried a lot because I was out by myself,” he says. “I didn't know nobody, and I had to make friends. I got in a fight the second day I got there.”
But Jimmy says he was glad his mother decided not to bring him home. His ability to sing, developed in church since before he could remember, helped him make friends. And when he was nine, he made three new ones—Clarence Fountain, Johnny Fields, and George Scott, three of the five founders of the Happy Land Jubilee Singers. They were older than Jimmy. Fields was fourteen at the time, and Fountain and Scott were twelve, when they invited Jimmy to join the group. Three years later, during their summer break from school in 1944, the Happy Land Jubilee Singers decided to take their show on the road. They traveled to Ishkooda to pick up Jimmy.
“In the summer of ’44, when they came to get me, my mom said, ‘No, he can’t go. He’s still young.’ I was twelve. So I had to go back to school. I didn't want to go back to school. I wanted to go with them.”
“In 1944, they had planned to go on their own and professionally, but in the summer of ’44, when they came to get me, my mom said, ‘No, he can’t go. He’s still young.’ I was twelve. So I had to go back to school. I didn't want to go back to school. I wanted to go with them.”
Thus, Jimmy Carter’s tenure with what would become the Blind Boys of Alabama ended. Without him, they performed mostly at churches and community gatherings, and word spread about their vocal prowess and riveting performances. In 1948, a New Jersey promoter booked the Happy Land Jubilee Singers on a bill with the Jackson Harmoneers, a Mississippi group whose members were also visually impaired. The promoter advertised the show as the “Battle of the Blind Boys.” In the wake of the show’s success, both groups changed their names. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi were born.
Thirty-eight years after the Blind Boys of Alabama hit the road without him, Jimmy Carter would rejoin them—but not before continuing his singing career with two other groups and a dreadful loss that changed him forever. A loss that would shake or destroy the faith of most. But not Jimmy Carter.
Imagine the life of the young Jimmy Carter. Growing up in the middle of the Great Depression, with Jim Crow laws still in force, and lynchings still widespread. But Jimmy had a guardian he worshipped. Not talking God here. We’re talking about Major Carter, his miner father.
“Times were hard, but I didn't feel nothing like that ’cause everything I wanted, my dad was going to get it if he could,” Jimmy remembers. “He was crazy about me. Whatever I wanted, I had it.”
After Jimmy finished his schooling in Talladega, he got a visit from an older classmate. The man invited him to join his singing group down in Mobile.
“And my mom, still she wouldn’t let me go,” Jimmy remembers. “But I was just about grown then. So somebody talked to her and told her, ‘You better let him go, because if you don’t, he might run away.’
“And I had thought about doing that, too.”
“They asked me, did I want to sign with the Blind Boys of Mississippi? I told them, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, meet us in Birmingham this coming Saturday.’”
So finally, Cassie relented and Jimmy headed out to join that Mobile group, who were called—you guessed it—the Blind Boys of Mobile.
Jimmy stayed with the Blind Boys of Mobile for three years and then moved to Columbus, Georgia, where he performed in a variety of groups. Then in 1964, he got a call from a member of the quintet formerly known as the Jackson Harmoneers, the same group that had played that fateful show in New Jersey sixteen years earlier—the “Battle of the Blind Boys”—with the Happy Land Jubilee Singers. After that show, you’ll recall, both groups took on “Blind Boys” names.
“The Blind Boys [of Mississippi] came to Columbus, and one of my buddies, they asked him about me,” Jimmy says. “The Blind Boys of Mississippi knew I was in Columbus, but they didn't know where. So they asked this boy, this buddy of mine, could he tell them where I was? They asked me, did I want to sign with the Blind Boys of Mississippi? I told them, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, meet us in Birmingham this coming Saturday.’”
Jimmy remembers the exact date: Saturday, March 7, 1964.
“I caught a bus from Columbus, Georgia, and went to Birmingham,” he says.
And for the next thirteen years, until 1979, Jimmy Carter sang with Blind Boys of Mississippi.
Three years later, in 1982, Clarence Fountain and George Scott, who thirty-eight years before had invited their twelve-year-old classmate Jimmy Carter to join the Happy Land Jubilee Singers, invited Jimmy again. Mama Cassie was still very much alive, but Jimmy no longer needed to ask permission. He said yes to the Blind Boys of Alabama on the spot.
His timing, it turned out, was perfect. A New York playwright named Lee Breuer was working on an odd idea. He wanted to recast a fifteen-hundred-year-old play, Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, as a Pentecostal sermon delivered in musical production. He would call it The Gospel at Colonus, and it premiered in 1983 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, known for its avant-garde productions. It picked up the 1984 Obie Award for Best Musical, and then the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1988, The Gospel at Colonus premiered on Broadway starring Morgan Freeman and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
After a 2018 reunion production, Hilton Als, the Pulitzer Prize-winning theater critic for The New Yorker, wrote, “Superlatives are increasingly difficult to back up, since most of the world speaks and tweets in exclamation points by now, but I think it’s safe to say that the director Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus is a masterpiece. I first saw it at BAM in 1983, when it premièred, and I left the theater with my shirtfront drenched with tears and the perspiration of relief: here was a portrait of Black life—of Black music, joy, and pain—that I could understand.”
The Gospel at Colonus transformed the Blind Boys of Alabama into a group far more important than faithful preservers of the South’s African American gospel music tradition. They became part of the national conversation. In the decades that followed, they became collaborators with a stunning array of secular performers—Ben Harper, Bon Iver, Bonnie Raitt, Prince, Peter Gabriel, and more. Between 2002 and 2009, they won the Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Gospel Album five times, culminating in a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.
I’ll never forget being up late on a January night in 2010 when the Blind Boys joined the late Lou Reed on the Late Show With David Letterman to perform a song Reed had written in 1969 during his time with the Velvet Underground. Given Reed’s addiction to heroin, the song, “Jesus,” had no doubt been written as the plea of a junkie nearing rock bottom.
Jesus, help me find my proper place
Help me in my weakness
’Cause I’m falling out of grace
That performance was still saturated with Reed’s distorted guitar, but clearly, forty-one years after he first recorded it, it had become a new creature, a call for something greater than mere relief. It was a now a plea for redemption. And there stood Jimmy Carter in the middle of it, improvising vocal melodies over Reed’s raunchy guitar, calling for salvation in the words of an ex-junkie. Help me in my weakness. Help me find my place.
When Echoes of the South comes out September 8, it will mark something of a homecoming for their native state. For the first time in a six-decade recording career, the Blind Boys of Alabama are making records with a label based in their home state—Single Lock Records, founded ten years ago in Florence. Florence—along with Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, and Sheffield—is one of the four “quad cities” of north Alabama that made a huge imprint on American music with the soul tunes they produced in the 1960s and ’70s.
The label is owned by the singer-songwriter John Paul White (formerly of the Civil Wars), drummer/manager Reed Watson, finance guy Will Trapp, and keyboardist/producer Ben Tanner. Tanner co-produced Echoes with the Blind Boys’ manager of more than two decades, Charles Driebe, and Matt Ross-Spang, who engineered and mixed Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free.
Tanner says he, Driebe, and Ross-Spang hoped to make an album that hearkened back to the simpler Blind Boys albums that came before their collaborations with superstars.
“It’s sort of an organic thing—a proper Blind Boys record, doing it kind of as live as possible in the spirit of those old records and [with] a mixture of material,” he says. “So it’s about half material from that era—and then about half that’s newer or different.”
Tanner says Echoes was his first time working on a “straight-up gospel” album, and he noticed something he rarely sees in other sessions.
“In most creative endeavors, most record-making processes, even the good ones, even the easy ones, there’s a lot of ego involved,” Tanner says. “Even in the best of times, there’s some ego and there can be some friction there, even if it’s healthy. And the almost entire lack of that in this record was refreshing and amazing and very unique. It’s just that the Blind Boys aren’t bringing ego to it. Jimmy is the definitive leader, and he isn’t bringing his ego to it. He’s trying to serve something higher than himself.”
For Echoes, the three producers called in the North Carolina-based keyboardist and guitarist Phil Cook, who is a deep student of Black gospel music and who first worked with the Blind Boys on the 2013 album I’ll Find a Way.
“The thing that’s beautiful to witness when in [Jimmy’s] presence are these moments when the spirit catches him, and this exuberantly youthful, joyful noise comes out of this dude, and he can’t contain himself and he can’t sit still,” Cook says. “Doesn't matter that he’s 90 years old. No, no, no, no. That man catches the spirit. It’s really quite something to see. Because he is quiet, but, when the spirit is there, it’s on. Oh, it’s on.”
When Echoes of the South is released on September 8, it will mark Jimmy Carter’s final appearance with the Blind Boys of Alabama. He has outlived and outlasted old dear friends who sang with him. Founding member George Scott died in 2005, and Clarence Fountain passed on in 2018.
“Clarence Fountain was a mountain, oh yeah,” Jimmy says. “He loved to be in the Bible. He had learned his Bible pretty good, and he was a businessman. If you couldn't do what he wanted to do, he would fire you. But me and him, we got along very well. I complemented him and he complemented me. I was just there to complement him, and I did the best I could. He said I did good.”
“I promised myself—and I promised the Blind Boys—that I would never do anything to cause them a disservice,” Jimmy says. “My voice is gone now, I have no more voice, so I refuse to go out there like that. And it’s just not good for me now to go [on the road]. I want to go out while I’m ahead, not behind.”
“I promised myself—and I promised the Blind Boys—that I would never do anything to cause them a disservice,”
Last year was rough for Jimmy Carter. Two other Blind Boys who recorded Echoes with him passed not long after recording was done. Benjamin Moore Jr, who had replaced founder George Scott, died late last year at age eighty. And Paul Beasley, a longtime member of the Gospel Keynotes and the Mighty Clouds of Joy who had joined the Blind Boys a decade ago after he lost his sight, crossed over in March at age seventy-eight.
“Losing both of them…,” Jimmy says, “just devastating. Ben and Paul were two good gospel singers, two good men in general. They believed in what I believe in. They had faith and they believed in God. A devastating loss, but I feel if they could speak to us today, they would tell us to go on.”
Can the Blind Boys of Alabama go on without the last singer who was there at the beginning? The evidence suggests they can. Somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty singers have been part of the Blind Boys since their founding in 1939. And right now, two longtime members—Ricky McKinnie and Joey Williams—will keep the group anchored.
Phil Cook, who has been part of the loose Blind Boys family for a decade, has no doubt that the group will not only survive, but thrive.
“It’s a legacy, man. It’s an institution,” Cook says. “I know for a fact that they're going to keep going because of how they’ve designed it. There are definitely new singers in the ranks that have come in, and their vetting system by now is so well-honed, and their network and their vine and their curation of the new personnel and new singers that have been coming in, it's just great, just absolutely incredible—people that have range and vitality and years still to go. So that signifies to me that their aim is to absolutely continue forward. Yes, sir.”
“It sounds like,” I say to Cook, “a self-perpetuating musical institution.”
“Yes, exactly,” he replies. “Absolutely. It’s like, I saw the Harlem Globetrotters with my son this year. He’s 12 years old, and that's exactly what age I was when I saw the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s not the same lineup at all, but there’s a little bit of a culture within that they have done a great job of preserving.”
It is Jimmy Carter’s fondest wish that the Blind Boys continue. On the day after this new album comes out, the group will begin a concert tour in Saint Cloud, Minnesota—the first road run in four decades without Jimmy.
What will go on without him is the culture of the Blind Boys—not just the assemblage of harmonious voices singing praise, but also the desire to give audiences a message of hope and the knowledge that prayers are, in fact, often answered.
Jimmy has believed in answered prayers for a long time now, and, truth be told, he’s got some of the best evidence I’ve ever seen.
In 1945, when Jimmy was thirteen, his beloved father, Major Carter, died in a mining accident. For the six years before his father’s death, alone at school in Talladega, Jimmy had prayed every night for God to help him get through life. But after his daddy died, his prayers became more specific.
“I used to pray every night to the Lord to let my mother live till I get grown,” Jimmy recalls, “so she can help me through all this that I was having to go through at that time.”
“See, the Blind Boys of Alabama, we want to be able to touch lives. Let the people know that there is hope. Let the people know that as long as you live, you have a chance.
Many of Jimmy Carter’s prayers since then were answered, but that prayer was the big one. Cassie Belle Carter lived until 2009. She was a hundred and three when she died.
In 2020, the Blind Boys recorded an album called Almost Home, where they collaborated with ace songwriters to write tunes based on their life experiences. Jimmy cowrote the second song on that album with the celebrated guitarist and producer (and husband to Rosanne Cash) John Leventhal and the singer-songwriter Marc Cohn: it’s called “Let My Mother Live.”
I was just a boy when my daddy died
He got killed down in the mine in 1945
I remember people talking while my mama cried
I was just a boy when my daddy died
Let my mother live till I get grown
Let my mother live till I get grown
Don’t leave me in a godforsaken world all alone
Let my mother live till I get grown
And she did, not just until her youngest son got grown, but until he was seventy-seven years old.
That spirit of hope, Jimmy says, is what the Blind Boys will carry without him.
“See,” Jimmy says, “the Blind Boys of Alabama, we want to be able to touch lives. Let the people know that there is hope. Let the people know that as long as you live, you have a chance. When Katrina came through, we couldn’t build a house or nothing like that. So I told the people, ‘We can’t help get y’all houses, but we can sing to you and try to bring you hope.’ So that’s what we all about. They have tried to get us to go the other way, but we tell them, no, we going to stay in gospel because we promise the Lord if he would take care us, we would serve him. So that’s what we’re going to do.
“I will always be a Blind Boy of Alabama,” he concludes. “If they ever need me at some special thing, I will try my best to get there.”
I know my afternoon with this marvelous man is coming to an end, so I ask Jimmy Carter if I may pose just one more question. He tells me to go ahead.
“When it finally comes your time to leave this earth, what do you want people to remember about you? What do you want your legacy to be?”
“I want my legacy,” he replies, “to be that he was a man that did his best to make life easy for somebody else. In other words, I want my legacy to be known that Jimmy Carter touched quite a few lives while he was on this earth. And he’ll be missed when he’s gone. I hope I am.”