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The seeing blind

What a legendary gospel singer reminds the world after a week filled with sad news of death

The seeing blind

Clarence Fountain (Left: Blind Boys of Alabama • Right: Justin Sullivan/AP)

Every week brings reminders that death comes for every man and every woman—and sometimes children—but it’s still a deep blow, no matter when or how it arrives.

Last week brought sad news of the sudden and tragic deaths of two well-known figures: fashion designer Kate Spade and television star and author Anthony Bourdain. Both had tremendously successful careers. Both committed suicide. 

Friday brought more sad news: Commentator and author Charles Krauthammer announced that his battle with cancer appears to be in its final stages. His doctor says he likely has weeks to live. Krauthammer has also enjoyed a robust career, despite enduring a diving injury at 22 that left him a quadriplegic. 

In a letter to colleagues, he said he was sad to leave this world, but he was thankful for the life he led: “This is the final verdict. My fight is over.”

I’ve written before about the Bible’s profound calling to live our lives with the end in mind. I still commend one of WORLD’s 2017 books of the year: Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End. 

In God’s timing, death is coming for all of us, and we should ask ourselves now: How will I live in light of it? We should also ask: How will we help others facing the same question? 

Those questions bring us to a death less noticed during the same week: Clarence Fountain, a founding member of the legendary gospel music group Blind Boys of Alabama, died on June 3 at age 88.

Fountain was born blind in Tyler, Ala., in 1929 during the Great Depression, and he attended the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind during the height of segregation in the Jim Crow era. There he met a handful of other young men who had something in common: They could sing. 

The teens formed a group with other members, and landed their first hit in 1948 with the gospel/blues song about losing a mother: “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine.”

The group became part of a golden era of gospel music, with a blues-infused style that led similar singers to migrate from the world of gospel tunes to the exploding landscape of rhythm and blues.

Fountain and his fellow singers decided they’d stick with gospel. 

It meant giving up a shot at a far more financially lucrative career and the prospect of international fame, but as Fountain explained years later: “Our purpose comes from up above.”

The group still had a tremendously respectable career, and won five Grammys, even as they committed to “stay on the gospel side,” as Fountain described it. 

Fountain’s performances were exuberant even as he sang songs that described the profound realities of Ecclesiastes: “Tried everything under the sun…”

What he learned: “Do what the Lord say do.”

It’s amazing what Fountain and his fellow singers did. 

“These men were … raised as blind, African American males in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, and they were sent to a school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms for a living,” the group’s manager once said. “But they’ve transcended all that.”

It was hard work, but Fountain kept the principles simple. “We’re just cut out to do what we’re doing,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1996. But Fountain also kept his eyes on the grace he often sang about in songs like, “Look Where He Brought Me From.” 

Last year, The Atlantic asked Fountain if he was sad that his poor health had brought his touring days to an end. (The group still tours with one original member and a handful of other singers.) 

“Everybody has a point in life when your time is out,” he replied. “But I thank Him for letting me live as long as I have.”

That gratitude seemed rooted in what he told a crowd several years before when he launched into a song during a live concert. “I didn’t come here looking for Jesus,” he said, wearing his trademark sunglasses. “I brought Him along with me.”