Faith keeps The Blind Boys of Alabama strong after 80 years

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Faith keeps The Blind Boys of Alabama strong after 80 years

Blind Boys of Alabama
Words by Fergus Neal

It’s been eight decades since The Blind Boys of Alabama first began singing together – and now the gospel group are headed to Port Fairy where they will mesmerise audiences with their transcendent music.

Eric ‘Ricky’ McKinnie started losing his eyesight at the age of 20 due to glaucoma and was completely blind soon thereafter. The talented musician had gone platinum with the Gospel Keynotes before going blind, but he never viewed his disability as an obstacle to furthering his music career.

“It’s not about what you can’t do. It’s about what you can do – and we can play good gospel music. Being blind is just a limitation – and we all have limitations,” he says.

The Blind Boys of Alabama first rose to fame in the segregated south with their spine-tingling vocal harmonies combined with an undercurrent of love. They released their debut single, ‘I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine,’ on the iconic Veejay Label in 1948. It wasn’t until 1990 that McKinnie officially joined Blind Boys as a drummer and vocalist – a decision that would lead the group to win five Grammys.

“I’ve been a member for about 32 years. My mother’s a gospel singer – that’s how I met the Blind Boys,” he says. “I started my first band when I was 14. I used to sing at a lot of talent shows and people enjoyed my singing and playing and that made me notice that I must have something going here. Music is from the heart and what comes from the heart reaches the heart.

“Looking back over my career, I’m always happiest when someone tells me they’ve enjoyed what we do – they leave feeling glad and that makes me feel good. Stand out moments for me are when the Blind Boys received a lifetime achievement award from The Grammy association – and getting to play for three presidents; Clinton, Bush, and Obama. But I wasn’t thinking about awards when I joined the Blind Boys. I just enjoyed singing and everything else fell into place. Those awards, it must have been meant to be.”

The Blind Boys of Alabama have performed on prestigious stages all over the world where they’ve inspired crowds regardless of race, gender, and ability. McKinnie is now looking forward to extending his uplifting music to audiences attending the 44th Annual Port Fairy Folk Festival.

“The Australian audiences are more energetic, because you don’t get what we do as often as people in America. You guys are fun as anything,” McKinnie says.

When asked why people find his music so spiritually uplifting, McKinnie draws in a deep breath.

“I was brought up in a Christian home. If you lift God up – he’ll draw all men. So, it was just embedded within me to go out and do what I do. I’ve always been a dreamer. If you can dream a dream and do the work, keep the faith, everything works out fine.

“Joy is something that can be inspired in you – but you also have to inspire it in yourself. Some people haven’t been anywhere or done anything more than just a regular job. But they just feel good about what they do. That’s the key.”

The Port Fairy Folk Festival is set to host an eclectic mix of internationally-renowned musical performers, great conversations, workshops, collaborations, and surprises. The 2020 festival will celebrate music from around the world, exemplifying the great folk/root traditions of many cultures, regions, communities, and countries – from Ireland to Port Fairy, Johannesburg to New Orleans, Celtic to Bluegrass – and many other exciting folk fusions.

The Blind Boys of Alabama hit Port Fairy Folk Festival from Friday March 6 to Monday March 9. Visit the festival website for more details. They’ll also appear at the Theatre Royal Castlemaine on Wednesday March 11 and at the Brunswick Music Festival on Thursday March 12.