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They came to sing the gospel

By Lory Picheca on February 14, 2014

“ All around, the world was white. The snow that winter had fallen in Biblical proportions. Into this clean-slate landscape stepped four blind men from Alabama. They came to sing the Gospel.”

When I opened my new Blind Boys of Alabama CD and these were the first words on the insert, a shiver went down my spine. It seemed prophetic; it is only days before the very same music legends will be traipsing over local snow banks as the final act of the 2014 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival.

The Blind Boys of Alabama are a five-time Grammy winning gospel group (awarded between 2002-09) culminating in a 2009 Grammy lifetime achievement award. After 7 decades of innovating and touring the world, their 2013 offering shows no signs of them letting up.

“I’ll Find a Way” is produced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. He is also featured on the Bob Dylan cover ‘Every Grain of Sand’ performing a gorgeous, stripped-down duet with lead singer Jimmy Carter. The team approach went much deeper with Vernon and long time collaborator Phil Cook working intimately on the project. The CD also features duets with Shera Worden of My Brightest Diamond, Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards and Casey Dienel of White Hinterland. Worth your time is a short video of the making of this CD, released by the Blind Boys in August 2013.

The current band line up is: Jimmy Carter-vocals (age 83 and founding member), Eric “Ricky” McKinnie-percussion, vocals, Joey Williams-lead guitar, vocals, Tracy Pierce-bass, and also Paul Beasley, Ben Moore and founding member Clarence Fountain who tours as his health allows.

The group first sang together as children at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega. They started in the glee club (1944) and by 1945 were playing for WWII soldiers at training camps and touring locally. In 1948 came their first single, a hit, “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine.” They have been involved in the civil rights movement, performing at Dr. King’s rallies and have continued to support international freedom movements.

From the beginning the Blind Boys were about inspiring others with their gifts rather than stressing their disabilities. Ricky McKinnie in a recent PBS interview explains it like this, “The Blind Boys is a group that’s not blind, they just can’t see and that means they might have lost their sight, but they never lost their direction.” And, yes, their direction is spreading “The Good News”, through beautiful music. And in so doing, they fill the heart of many a secular listener, including this woman, who is looking for warmth anywhere she can find it during this long cold northern winter.

If you are still hedging on attending the show, wondering if it is to your taste, here is one more fun fact – do you love HBO’s The Wire? Remember the first season’s theme, a cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole”? Well you have already been enjoying the Blind Boys! In fact their 2000s career has been marked by collaborations with many different kinds of artists in numerous genres of music including hip-hop, country, bluegrass and jazz.

Watch The Making of I’ll Find a Way:

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFGdOCPstTY[/youtube]

The 2014 Winter Ottawa Jazz Festival runs from February 14-16th. They present the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Dominion-Chalmers United Church 7pm, on Sunday Feb 16th. Get tickets online, at Compact Music locations, the Ottawa Jazz Festival office or at the door. $47 General Admission, $60 Reserved seating, $32 Youth 25 and under (with valid ID) Box office will be located at the Lisgar Street church entrance.