The next signal event in Alabama uplifting the disabled is the premiere of the new PBS film, “A Symphony Celebration: The Blind Boys of Alabama.” This first viewing will be at the historic Alabama Theatre in downtown Birmingham on Thursday at 7 p.m.

The event is free, but you must have an advance ticket. You can get tickets here.

The Blind Boys of Alabama are a four-member gospel singing group founded in 1939 at the Negro Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, long since merged into the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega.

They have won five Grammy Awards (so far). They are currently up for three additional Grammys. They were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2003 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

Their hit, “Way Down in the Hole,” by Tom Wait, was adopted as the theme song of the HBO series “The Wire.”

Dr. Henry Panion, III, a musical aficionado, is doing double duty in the film. He is both the conductor and the commentator. He is a composer, arranger, conductor, educator and professor in the Department of Music at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  

Panion has produced, arranged and conducted for noted artists, including Stevie Wonder, Chet Atkins, Ellis Marsalis, Jr., Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Lionel Hampton and American Idol winners Carrie Underwood and Ruben Studdard.

In the film, The Blind Boys are backed up by The Alabama Symphony Orchestra and a 300-voice choir from Alabama's historically black colleges and universities, including Alabama State, Alabama A&M, Miles College, Tuskegee University and Talladega College, joined by choirs from Birmingham-Southern College and UAB.

This film is an all-Alabama cast.

The members of the Blind Boys of Alabama will be there themselves watching their movie. They will be in a place of honor in the audience at the Alabama Theatre, along with the movie’s commentator/conductor, Dr. Panion.

We received fascinating answers to the question, “How can the blind boys see the movie?”

“They can, of course, hear the music that they sing and the backup orchestra and choirs.”

“They can hear and feel the reaction of the audience.”

“They can hear the applause.”

“The movie’s commentator will tell what is happening, along with the music that they can hear.”

“They have been doing this a long time, all their lives.”

“They can see it in their mind’s eye.”

It brings back memories of when Miss Alabama, Heather Whitestone, who was deaf, was asked in the finals of the Miss America Contest how she kept to the beat of the music during her talent act, a complex ballet routine. She could not hear the music or the beat. She replied, “I hear it in my heart.”  She won the Miss America crown in 1995. 

The Blind Boys have their first book coming out. On March 29, “Spirit of the Century” will be released by Hachette Books. It can be pre-ordered here.

The 91-year-old member of The Blind Boys, Jimmy Carter of Birmingham, told this story of the group’s first radio broadcast, back when radio was the ticket for gospel groups:

On June 10, 1944, six teenagers from the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind arrived at the headquarters of Birmingham radio station WSGN. Broadcast from a studio at the Dixie Carlton Hotel, the station was a fixture for news and music in the area, but for the students of the “Negro Institute,” it was far more than that. It was a beacon of hope, a refuge from the harsh realities of the Jim Crow South, a portal to another world they could only dream of. With no radios available at school, the boys had to get creative in order to listen, often slipping away to the homes of nearby friends and family members in the afternoons to catch gospel groups.

On this particular afternoon, however, the boys would be doing the singing themselves, performing professionally for the very first time. They had no way of knowing but the sextet—who would adopt the name, The Blind Boys of Alabama—was embarking on an 80-year odyssey that day, one that would take them everywhere from Carnegie Hall and the White House to the Grammys and the Gospel Hall of Fame as they broke down racial barriers, soundtracked the Civil Rights movement, and helped redefine modern gospel music in the process.

“From the very first show, the Blind Boys of Alabama have always tried to lift people up and make them feel good,” says their 91-year-old member, Jimmy Carter. “We don’t want people to come to our concerts and leave the same way they came. We want to give them a better outlook on life.”

“The spirit of the Blind Boys isn’t about what you can’t do; it’s about what you can do,” says Ricky McKinnie, who joined the group in 1989. “As long as we stay true to that, as long as everybody gives all that they have to give and we sing songs that touch the heart, this group will live on forever.” 

The Blind Boys even recorded one of their albums, "Echoes Of The South," in Alabama’s recording mecca, The Shoals, in the studio, “The Nuthouse,” in Sheffield.

The premiere event coordinators are requiring advance tickets because of the limited number of seats, even though the tickets are free.

 “A Symphony Celebration” will begin airing nationwide on PBS in February. Check back with 1819 News for a schedule of TV showings and local channels. Alabama folks have the chance to be the first to experience the film in the classic setting of the Alabama Theatre.

Blind Boys’ singer Ricky McKinnie said in a 2011 interview with Mother Jones Magazine, "Our disability doesn't have to be a handicap. It's not about what you can't do. It's about what you do. And what we do is sing good gospel music."

Jim Zeigler is a former Alabama Public Service Commissioner and State Auditor. You can reach him for comments at [email protected].

Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.