Cynics like to believe that time pushes things into the ground, slowly breaking bones and crushing dreams and burying anything worth believing. All things are crumbling, they say, and nothing can beat the omnipotent bear-hug of entropy.
The history of the Blind Boys of Alabama is sketchy at best, but there's no doubting the clarity of where they are today. Formed sometime in the late 1930's at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Alabama, the Blind Boys spent fifty years traveling the gospel circuits of the southern United States, playing in churches for often-segregated crowds and inspiring the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland and the late Marvin Gaye. The group, whose leader Jimmy Carter shares a name with another undersung Southern hero, didn't find widespread fame until appearing in a 1988 Broadway musical. Over the course of their first fifty years of existence, singers died and were replaced, record labels signed and dropped them, and singles charted and were forgotten.
The musical, Gospel at Colonus, introduced the Blind Boys to a wider audience, which has only multiplied with the passing time. The past twenty years have found them touring Europe, playing such American mega-festivals as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and working and touring with renowned artists like Allen Toussaint, Lou Reed, and Ben Harper. The Blind Boys' tight harmonies waver and vibrate with all the soul of seventy years of American history – from the years following the Great Depression through World War II, the era of Jim Crow through desegregation. The Blind Boys have survived through the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and two Gulf Wars; through the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X. As they've felt their way through the darkness of their times, the Blind Boys have continued to sing with the kind of unabashed joy found among the best gospel artists, their voices – deep, rich, profound voices – harmonizing and resonating with an audacious hope.
That is the purpose of gospel music, after all. From the biblical psalters to the fields of Southern plantations, God's people have used song not only to sing His praise but to galvanize hope within themselves. Songs and music are, after all, the best way to carry light to a blind people. This is a mystical thing, the way that music works, its ability to find the heart through the ears, as the best artists in any genre know quite well. Despite its non-rationality, music quite easily slices through the thickest blankets of cynicism and frees dusty, crumbling hearts. Things can beat out a pulse again; colors don't have to be seen to be experienced.
That four blind African-Americans were singing gospel music in 1937 isn't astounding, nor is it especially astounding that they continue to do so seventy years later. What's truly astounding, in the face of what often seems like impenetrable darkness of the day, is that the Blind Boys of Alabama continue to cut a wide path of jumping, shaking, dancing light for a people far more blind than themselves, knowing good and well that the best sights in the world don't have to be seen to be seen.
- Marty Garner