There is nothing more unique than the sound of the human voice. From it comes all of the sounds of our spirit, our emotions, our passions. Today, I sit here in the warmth of a small apartment, the rain pouring outside as I listen to the Blind Boys of Alabama, defying time and spiritual boundaries to sing their love songs to Jesus for me. “Hold Me Jesus(in the Palm of Your Hand)” is singing passionately with near perfect harmony. It’s voices like these I run to when I need comfort. If they are the voices of angels, fallen to earth for a short while, then it is good to cling to for comfort this holiday season.
It’s impossible to write about the Blind Boys of Alabama without tackling religion and spirituality since this is the foundation of a career that has spanned seven decades, crossed popular musical boundaries, and defied all the conventions of gospel and mainstream music. They have performed and recorded popular musicians and gained cross-over chart success beyond all expectations. Some of their collaborations have included Tom Waits, Ben Harper, Willie Nelson, Lou Reed, and their current collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on their latest album, I’ll Find a Way.
They have never compromised their message or its meaning. They remain singing preachers, testifying to what they know to be true: there is a God whom they found in Jesus Christ and He is involved in their lives, most importantly their music. While so many groups and factions today promote an image of believing Christians who are narrow-minded, politically right-wing, and even, in some extreme cases, filled with hatred, The Blind Boys of Alabama shine a light that trivializes and minimizes the effects of the haters and the biased. At the same time, as they break the mold of preconceived notions, they turn their faith through their music into something that burns as it purifies, cleanses, and heals. They are true witnesses, testifiers, and prophets. As the Blind Boys tour today, with only the eldest, Jimmy(aka “Jimster”) Carter, who has been a member since the ’40s, they bring with them a legacy that includes five Grammys and four Gospel Music Awards.
So, I sit here in the midst of Ordinary Time, preparing for the holy Christian season of Advent. It’s an unusual time in our nation’s history. Never has there been a more divisive period during my lifetime. There’s such darkness along the political and social landscape, it is sometimes a challenge to tune in to anything without feeling angst and stress. But, beyond that, deeper in the darkness, there is this period Christians call Advent. It’s a time of waiting. Waiting for gifts of healing and pleasure from wise men. When Christmas comes, there is celebration. Advent is by its nature feminine. As the Virgin Mary waits for her coming child, she is like the time’s we live in, pregnant with possibilities waiting for truth to come. She waits for this divine gift. As of this writing, in a few days we remember the loss of a Once and Future King, President John F. Kennedy. It’s a cruel reminder of how, in our times, the visionaries are murdered while evil seems to keep going at a fast clip with ever-blinding ideology and propaganda. But, with Christmas comes gifts. And for us the deepest gifts this holiday season must be the sight of wisdom, healing, and truth.
The Blind Boys of Alabama may be blind, but they see far more than many sighted people. By example the have been unafraid to go where they feel called and to open doors that have been closed to gospel singers. Where ever they go, like those three kings in the traditional Christmas story, they bring gifts. Those gifts are wisdom, healing, and truth through their music, their voices. Those voices echo across the long valleys of time, generations, and boundaries between nations. They have lasted through racism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, economic downturns, affluence, progress and more wars, and what seems today like a return to racism. As they sing they are following the example of their Lord, Jesus Christ. They are going out to the sinners and the saints. As they walk a sometimes dangerous ground, they are aware of the higher ground they move toward. Their music inspires rather than preaches; they convince by their own conviction rather than by manipulation or guilt. Their audience doesn’t have to be converted to enjoy their music. Those voices will lead us on down the right path, whatever that may be for each individual. The best religious and spiritual truth is personal and universal. The best in the Blind Boys of Alabama carries the same quality.
I had the pleasure of attending a Hollywood recording session where the Blind Boys had been hired to provide background tracks for an up-and-coming Americana group, William Pilgrim. This new band consists of a writer, producer, instrumentalist PM Romero and Ish Herring, a young African American, fresh off the streets. As we sat in the control room, the gospel singers listened to the rough mix of the recording of a song with the tag line “there will be peace.” That was the extent of their lyrical contribution, which would last a little over a minute. The four artists sat together on the couch holding their canes and listening carefully. In seconds three of them, Ben Moore, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, and Joey Williams, had the harmonies nearly ready to go. It was magical to hear those three voices in near-perfect blend, create their part with such ease. They worked for an hour and laid down the track in a half an hour. Then, the lead vocalist, Jimmy Carter, was escorted in to provide a lead vocal track over the three-part harmony chorus. Jimmy had it nailed down and mastered within five minutes, requiring only one take. After he finished everyone in the studio remained silent for a few seconds and then began to applause.
That experience was and is a perfect reminder of the greatest gift to expect from the Christmas season, “There Will Be Peace,” as 84 year-old Jimmy Carter sang in tandem with 28-year-old Ish Herring that day in Hollywood. Peace is not passive but demands a pro-active response to the chaos in the world today. The Blind Boys of Alabama seem to represent the wise men from some remote time in history, bringing such gifts to us all as their response. And all we need do is listen to those voices. The music will do the rest.
The Blind Boys of Alabama performs live on Saturday, December 7, 8pm, at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, 15498 Espola Rd., Poway. For ticket information, go to: www.powaycenter.com/