Blind World Magazine

There are worse things than being blind.

September 30, 2005.
Edmonton Sun, Canada.

There are better things than seeing. The smell of apricot jam on toast, the feel of a grandpa's whiskers, the sound of record scratches. Still, we rely on the visual so much, and modern music is sadly nothing without the flash of skin and its expensive haircuts.

But imagine travelling without being able to see anything? What would life on the road be, merely tactile, scented and heard? As I interviewed drummer Eric "Ricky" McKinnie, one of the Blind Boys of Alabama, coming to the Winspear on Wednesday, I realized something startling. I'd never talked to a blind person before at any length! Helping a guy out on a bus years ago hardly counts, though that fellow strangely assured me that taking photos of his guide dog was a federal offence.

Soft-spoken McKinnie, on the phone in his home in Atlanta, Georgia, answers all my dopey, basic questions with patience. He tells me about the software that reads him the Internet and e-mail, how it sometimes screws up and says silly things.

McKinnie, as he puts it, "was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in a Christian home. My mother was a gospel singer, and we started our own gospel group that could be heard on the radio in this city. I've been a Blind Boy for 15 years."

McKinnie, 53, wasn't born blind. He lost his sight in 1975 to that devil glaucoma in his early 20s. Already an established act in town, drumming for Troy Ramey and the Soul Searchers and the Gospel Keynotes, after he lost his sight, he started playing with his brother and mother in the Ricky McKinnie Singers.

Moving through the gospel circuit, he became friends with and eventually joined the Blind Boys, an act that's been going since 1939. Three surviving founders, Clarence Fountain and the coincidentally named Jimmy Carter and George Scott still provide vocals on songs they've been singing since the Second World War, while Caleb Butler, Joey Williams and Tracy Piece fill up the instrumental band with McKinnie. Having resisted any number of lures and temptations over the years, the men stuck to their pious template.

As Scott told 60 Minutes, "We are looking for that eternity, that life eternal. And rock 'n' roll couldn't give us that. Now, after all that money's gone, where is your soul?"

In 1983, the band was rediscovered by Broadway audiences, and soon enough they began doing soundtrack work. You may know their theme song for that awesome show The Wire - a cover of Tom Waits's Way Down in the Hole. This formula of "gospelizing" modern music has paid off, in the least of ways with four consecutive Grammys for gospel soul recordings. You may also have heard their take of Amazing Grace rescored atop House of the Rising Sun. Carter afterwards commented, "Amazing Grace is an old standard, so we thought changing it to the tunes of House of the Rising Sun was kind of sacrilegious-like."

"But, I mean, being musically inclined, you understand," Scott added, "I like the sound of it. It fit kind of like a hand in glove."

Between 1997 and 2000, McKinnie took on the role of manager, but stepped down to road manager to concentrate on the music. They recently played a hurricane Katrina benefit in Atlanta, and like so many down there (and up here), McKinnie shakes his head about the disparity in rescue efforts based on unseen economic borders.

"I think it could have been handled better, there's no question. But we're doing what we can for ourselves."

This attitude comes naturally. McKinnie, who also runs a studio and has a regular radio show, is a master of independence. But back to our original thought about travelling the world without being able to see it, McKinnie answers what it's like quickly. "I love it! You know why? People. Travelling is all about making friends."

In other words, it has nothing to do with senses at all.

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