Alexander Griffiths on the transcendental music of American legend Blind Willie Johnson
In 1897, Rev. “Blind” Willie Johnson was born in Texas. Details beyond this become scarcer and harder to confirm. According to some he lost his sight in childhood after his stepmother threw lye into his eyes following a particularly vicious fight between his father and her. Willie sang and preached on street corners, never making much money or receiving the fame of his contemporaries such as Blind Willie McTell and the proto-rock star Robert Johnson.
Whilst not a ‘bluesman’ in a traditional sense (Blind Willie only sang spiritual songs), his influence on rock ‘n’ roll is pervasive. Led Zeppelin’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine is one of the more famous covers, followed by Clapton’s Motherless Children. More than a debt of gratitude, these acts owe a shedload of money in royalties. Jack White cites Johnson as an influence and has called Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground the “greatest example of slide guitar ever recorded”.
Despite his legacy and influence in the development of the music of the twentieth century, Blind Willie Johnson died without the recognition or, more importantly, the money he deserved. Johnson’s house burned down in 1945. With nowhere else to go, Blind Willie slept on a damp bed in the wreckage, eventually catching malaria and, unable to go to hospital because of the colour of his skin, he died. The tragedy in Blind Willie’s life makes the music he left behind all the more powerful. The moans and hums of Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, a slide guitar lament of the Crucifixion, make perhaps the most moving and soulful sound ever recorded. To me, it’s the definition of holy music.
In 1977, the NASA Voyager I spacecraft was launched into the dark with the sounds of Earth on a golden record. Animal calls, tribal songs and Chuck Berry were amongst the music sent farther than anything man-made has ever been. Currently seventeen billion kilometers from our little blue planet, the vessel contains a recording from 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson of Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground. Carl Sagan was the one who chose the song, saying “Johnson’s song concerns a situation he faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight.”
The universality of the wordless song makes it the perfect human expression of loneliness. Famous actor and composer Steve Martin joked not long after the Voyager probe had been launched that Earth had received a message back from another world: “Send more Blind Willie Johnson.”
In 2007, a teenager with an unhealthy obsession with The White Stripes walked into a library near his school seeking out old blues albums. He had heard live bootlegs of his favourite blues-rock duo playing a song called Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying and become curious. Amongst the B*Witched CDs and Blur’s greatest hits was The Complete Recordings of Blind Willie Johnson. Two discs of music, just 30 songs (!) are all that remain of Johnson.
The point of this article isn’t just to tell you to seek out Blind Willie’s music, elemental and transcendental as it is, but to try to show that pretty much anyone who has picked up a guitar and become famous in the past 60 years owes something to men who died poor and for the most part forgotten. Their gifts to us all deserve recognition.
Image 1 – flickr, photo by Early Blues Masters
Image 2 – flickr, photo by kbaird