A singing street-corner evangelist, Blind Willie Johnson created some of the most intensely moving records of the 20th century. Void of frivolity or uncertainty, his 78s from the 1920s and ’30s are clearly the work of a pained believer seeking redemption. A slide guitarist nonpareil, Johnson had an exquisite sense of timing and tone, using a pocketknife or ring slider to duplicate his vocal inflections or to produce an unforgettable phrase from a single strike of a string. Eric Clapton cites his “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” as “probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear,” and Ry Cooder calls “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” the “most transcendent piece in all American music.”
“Blind Willie Johnson had great dexterity,” Ry Cooder described, “because he could play all of these sparking little melody lines. He had fabulous syncopation; he could keep his thumb going really strong. He’s so good – I mean, he’s just so good! Beyond being a guitar player, I think the guy is one of these interplanetary world musicians, the kind of person they talk about in that Nada Brahma book, where the world is sound and everything is resonating. He’s one of those guys. There’s only a few. Blind Willie Johnson is in the ether somewhere. He’s up there in the zone.”
The Early Years
As great a player as Blind Willie Johnson was, precious few historic documents connect directly to him. The most important is his death certificate, filed on September 21, 1945, in Beaumont, Texas. The name “Angelina Johnson” appears in the “signature” area of the document, so presumably his widow, Angeline, provided the information. According to this document, Willie Johnson, Jr., was born on January 22, 1897, in Independence, Texas. His parents are listed as Willie Johnson, Sr., of Mississippi, and Mary Fields of Moody, Texas. The document further reveals Johnson had lived at 1440 Forest in Beaumont for “30 years” and worked as a minister.
On to the second document. A few years ago blues researcher Jeff Anderson turned up a 1918 draft registration card from Houston that may or may not be directly related to the Blind Willie Johnson who made recordings. The strongest details linking it to our Blind Willie is the date of birth – January 25, 1897 – and the fact that it states that this Willie Johnson, aged 21, had been blind for “13 years,” which tallies with a statement Angeline made that her husband was blinded at age seven. But the father listed on the draft card is “Dock Johnson,” and Pendleton, Texas, is given as his place of birth. “Willie Johnson,” obviously, is a common name, and it is possible that this draft card relates to another person.
In his seminal 1959 book The Country Blues, Samuel Charters, who found and interviewed Angeline Johnson in 1953, provides yet another scenario for Johnson’s early life: “Blind Willie was born on a farm outside of Marlin, Texas, a small town east of the Brazos River. His father was named George Johnson. When Willie was three or four years old, about 1905, his mother died and his father married again. About the time he was seven years old, his father caught his second wife with another man and beat her. To get even with Willie’s father she threw a pan of lye water in the little boy’s face, blinding him.”
It is certain that Blind Willie Johnson spent most of his youth around Marlin. At the time, Marlin was more bustling than it is today. The city was renowned for its healing hot mineral wells, bath houses, sanitariums, sumptuous hotels, and clement weather. A pre-World War I promotional brochure praised the city’s “twelve modern churches,” “modern electric light, power, and ice plant,” “fifty-four miles of graded, graveled, and well-drained residence streets,” and its “pressed brick plant, modern steam laundry, planing mill, compress, oil mill, three cotton gins, numerous garages, vulcanizing plants and supply houses.” The New York Giants baseball team headquartered its off-season training camp in Marlin.
Young Johnson attended the Church of God in Christ on Commerce Street. The denomination encouraged energetic music making, and by age five, Angeline reported, Johnson knew he wanted to be part of that: “His daddy said he wanted to be a ‘beecher,’ talking about a preacher, and so he got him a cigar box and made him a guitar out of it.” In time, Johnson became skilled in both standard tuning and the open-D tuning he used for slide. Many of his songs were culled from old hymnals, such as the 1881 copy of T.C. O’Kane’s Redeemer’s Praise for the Sunday-School, Church and Family that Angeline gave Sam Charters. “Willie sang in the churches and for religious meetings on the outskirts of town,” Charters reported. “In the winter months he would stand in the wind, playing an incessant, rasping guitar accompaniment to his rough voice, until his fingers were stiff with the cold. A tin cup was fashioned with wire to the neck of his guitar so people could drop coins in while he was playing.” Some of Marlin’s older residents remembered that Johnson was influenced by a local blind preacher and singer named Madkin Butler, who taught him at least one of the songs he’d record, “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right.” Madkin apparently didn’t play any instruments, and Johnson was occasionally seen accompanying him at Baptist church gatherings.
Elder residents of Hearne, Texas, recalled Johnson singing on the streets in the mid 1920s. “His father was farming outside of town,” Charters wrote. “He would bring Willie in from the farm and Willie would sit under an awning singing as the crowds of people, in from the farms to shop, would walk past. Toward the end of the afternoon, the shopping done, they would stand listening. Hearne was a brickyard town, with nine yards working. There was money for street beggars and singers.” Blind Lemon Jefferson would also frequent Hearne, and residents remembered Johnson singing gospel on one street corner while Blind Lemon Jefferson sang blues on another. Both men had stentorian voices, rhythmic drive, and a special facility with staccato, by-the-bridge bass runs, so it’s possible they may have exchanged information. Jefferson, however, recorded very little on slide guitar – just two 1926 takes of “Jack O’ Diamonds Blues” – while Johnson did his very best work with a slide.
Around 1926 Johnson married Willie B. Harris, who told researcher Dan Williams that her former husband “wasn’t no preacher, just a songster.” She recalled him playing guitar and piano at church services and revival meetings. During their marriage they resided in a small house at 817 Hunter Street in Marlin. Willie B. Harris, who had a beautiful, countrified voice, would accompany Blind Willie Johnson on several of his 1928 and 1930 recordings. According to Michael Corcoran’s article “Retracing the Life of a Texas Music Icon” in the Austin American-Statesman, Blind Willie Johnson and Willie B. Harris had one child together, Sam Faye Johnson Kelly. Her birth certificate shows that she was born on June 23, 1931. On the certificate, her father is listed as “Willie Johnson, musician,” and her mother’s maiden name is “Willie B. Hays.” In 2003, Kelly was asked about her father: “I remember him sitting here in the kitchen and reciting from the Bible. But I was just a little girl when he went away.” During this period, Kelly recalled, her mother worked “seven days a week as a nurse.”
Which brings us to another mystery regarding the life of Blind Willie Johnson: When did he marry Angeline? Her account of their first meeting, in Dallas, was included in the liner notes for Yazoo Records’ Praise God I’m Satisfied album: “He was singin’ on the street, an’ he was singin’ ‘If I Had-a My Way,’ an’ I went walkin’ behind him. I asked him, I says, ‘Say, are you married or single?’ He says: ‘I’m, uh, single.’ An’ I say: ‘Come go to my house; I have a piano,’ an’ I say: ‘an’ we will get together and sing.’ And he says: ‘Have you ever singed anywhere?’ I said: ‘I sing over the radio and at our church.’ An’ so he says: ‘All right.’ We went over to the house an’ we sit down an’ taken a few drinks, you know, an’ played; then he played his guitar an’ I got up to the piano an’ I went to playin’ ‘If I Had-a My Way’; he says, ‘Go on, gal!’ He say: ‘Tear it up!’ We went on back. He says: ‘Well, let’s get on the street.’ I say, ‘Well, look! Don’t you want something to eat?’ He says: ‘What have you to cook?’ I says: ‘Well, I have some crabs.’ I say: ‘We’re makin’ the old-time niggers’ gumbo!’ I say: ‘Don’t you want some??!!’ An’ he says, ‘Well, yes.’ He says: ‘Say! Uh, let’s marry!’ An’ I says ‘Okay,’ that’s what I wanted. He says: ‘Well, when can you get ready?’ I say: ‘I’ll get ready tomorrow.’” They reportedly married the following day, June 22. In Charters’ The Country Blues and other sources, the year of this marriage has been given as 1927, but no marriage certificate has been found to confirm this.
According to Willie B. Harris, her marriage to Johnson ended around 1932 or ’33. “It is possible that Willie was with both women over the same period of years,” Charters speculated in his liner notes to 1993’s The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, “but the relationship with Angeline could easily have begun around the time his marriage to the other woman was ending.” Further muddying these waters is a statement by Angeline that she stayed home in Beaumont with their child while Blind Willie Johnson was off making records, and that sometimes he was gone for up to thirty days.
Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia Recording Artist
In December 1927, the Columbia record company sent Frank Walker to Dallas to make field recordings of American-American musicians. It was the label’s first foray into Texas, and over the course of five days Walker and his team would capture a wide array of African-American musical styles. On December 2, they produced two 78s by blues singer Lillian Glinn backed by pianist Willie Tyson, followed by two 78s by Washington Phillips, who accompanied his gospel songs on a keyboard-equipped zither called a Dolceola. His hauntingly beautiful “Take Your Burden to the Lord” is a must-hear! The following day, the Columbia unit began with an act billed as Billiken Johnson and Fred Adams; Billiken Johnson’s shtick was using his voice to create sound effects such as a train whistle and braying mule. Next up was the Dallas String Band’s Coley Jones, making his recording debut a solo singer/guitarist, and pianist Willie Tyson, recording the only 78 issued under his own name.
Then it was Blind Willie Johnson’s turn. He jump-started what was to be one of the greatest single-day sessions of the prewar blues and gospel era with a slide masterpiece, “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole.” He then cut his enduring renditions of “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” and “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” and sang of a pain he knew all too well in “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time,” one of the saddest songs imaginable. (Columbia got the title wrong on its initial release; on a re-release on the Anchor label, credited to The Blind Pilgrim, the song was correctly titled “Motherless Children.”) Johnson followed with his landmark instrumental “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground.” He then re-tuned his guitar to standard for “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down,” a slideless retelling of the Sampson and Delilah story. On December 6th, Columbia’s field unit wrapped up their visit with the full Dallas String Band’s debut recordings, harmonica wizard William McCoy’s tour-de-force “Train Imitations and The Fox Chase,” and the only 78s issued by singers Hattie Hudson and Gertrude Perkins.
Among these artists, Blind Willie Johnson would become the most popular. His records were unlike anything heard from Columbia label mates such as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Clara Smith, Lonnie Johnson, and Peg Leg Howell – or anyone else, for that matter. The original ad for his first 78 – “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole” backed with “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” – proclaimed: “This new and exclusive Columbia artist sings sacred songs in a way you have never heard before. Be sure to hear his first record and listen close to that guitar accompaniment. Nothing like it anywhere else.” The company had faith in the release, doing an initial pressing of 9400 copies, priced at 75 cents apiece. Their second run produced another 6000 copies. Sales took off. Blind Willie Johnson was soon one of Columbia’s best-selling race artists, and his influence on other artists, especially Southern gospel singers, was immediate and long-lasting. During the next few years, four of his 78s were popular enough to be issued on both the Columbia and Vocalion labels.
The second Blind Willie Johnson release, “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” backed with “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground,” was reviewed by Abbe Niles in a national magazine, Bookman. Niles singled out Johnson’s “violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans and his inspired guitar playing in a primitive and frightening Negro religious song.” A meditation cast in hums, moans, and ghostly slide, “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” was a reworking of well-known hymn about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The hymn’s full title helps clarify its meaning: “Dark Was the Night and Cold Was the Ground on Which Our Lord Was Laid.” Ry Cooder recast Johnson’s instrumental arrangement as the centerpiece of his Paris, Texas soundtrack. “I’ve tried all my life – worked very hard and every day of my life, practically – to play in that style,” Cooder said. “Not consciously saying, ‘Today’s Tuesday; I will again try to play like Blind Willie Johnson,’ you know, but that sound is in my head. The single-string melody thing that he did is so great, and he’s just so good. And ‘Dark Was the Night’ is the cut. You can throw that lick at anybody nowadays – everybody relates. It’s like an unspoken word.” (You can legally download this and many other Blind Willie Johnson tracks at http://www.archive.org .)
How did Johnson achieve his distinctive guitar sound? In his sole surviving photo, a Columbia publicity shot, he holds a small 12-fret acoustic, possibly a Stella, Harmony, or pre-Kay Stromberg-Voisinet. This may have been the guitar used at the session – the fact that it has a cup wired to the headstock suggests that this was his personal guitar rather than a photographer’s prop instrument. One of the keys to Johnson’s tone, Cooder speculates, is how he held his slider: “I’ve seen this blind preacher from Mississippi, Reverend Leon Pinson, play holding a bar between his left-hand finger and thumb. He reaches around underneath – like you normally would – and gets a very similar vibrato to Blind Willie Johnson’s. It has that quality of coming up to the note and never quite hitting it. That’s a very inexact technique, but it does give you the quarter-tones and all of the strange nuances. Blind Willie Johnson had great dexterity and fabulous syncopation; he could keep his thumb going real strong. He had the best left-hand vibrato – the absolute best. Very light touch, real light, and really fast. But that vibrato, I think you can only do it by wiggling that bar just right.” (For more of Cooder’s insights on Blind Willie Johnson’s guitar technique, see http://jasobrecht.com/ry-cooder-%e2%80%93-talking-country-blues-and-gospel/ .)
Columbia’s field unit returned to Dallas in December 1928 to record sixteen musical acts ranging from Frenchy’s String Band, Rev. J.W Heads, and the Texas Jubilee Singers to the returning Washington Phillips, Billiken Johnson, Dallas String Band, and Blind Willie Johnson. Cutting four songs on December 5th, Johnson was accompanied by the plaintive vocal harmonies of a Willie B. Harris, who remembered that Columbia paid for their stay at the Delmonico Hotel on Elm Street. Johnson began his session with “I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuge,” using a straight-forward strumming playing approach similar to “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down.” In the harrowing “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” also played without a slide, he sang of the catastrophic 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic, warning people to “turn away from evil and seek the Lord and pray.” His third song, the slide tune “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying” inspired many covers both spiritual and secular, as did his final and arguably best selection of the day, “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” In addition to the stellar vocal interplay between Johnson and Harris, this song showcases his brilliant technique of playing slide solos in the middle and upper ranges of the guitar. I once mentioned these 1928 recordings to Country Joe McDonald, who responded, “Blind Willie Johnson with his wife was just unbelievable. You’re hearing a flash from the past, the tradition alive. Her singing has a modal plaintiveness that’s a line going back to West Africa and to Portugal and to the Moslem prayer chanting. It’s so spooky.”
Blind Willie Johnson’s next session took place on December 10, 1929, in Werlein’s Music Store in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He performed four songs alone that day. Played in standard tuning, his congregation-rousing “Let Your Light Shine on Me” had been published in the early 1920s by evangelist Homer Rodeheaver. Johnson’s version jumped tempos, moving from slow chordal rhythms to chugging strumming to flashy bass runs. Johnson re-entered the slide zone in “God Don’t Never Change,” once again singing of the influenza epidemic. He also played slide on one of his gentlest, most laid-back recordings, “Bye and Bye I’m Goin’ to See the King.” He re-tuned to standard and resurrected his gruff voice for a lackluster, slightly out-of-tune version of the white gospel hymn “Sweeter as the Years Go By.” As Samuel Charters wrote of the song in his liner notes for Legacy’s The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, “For once the guitar accompaniment sounded clumsy and ordinary. He seemed to be running out of material, as happened to all but a handful of country singers, and he drifted into a style of song and playing that was badly suited to his own way of performing.”
Johnson hit his stride the following day, when he was accompanied by an unidentified female singer on five of his six selections. “Who she is will probably never be known,” Charters wrote. “It’s been suggested that she was someone he met at one of the New Orleans churches. She had a strong voice, but with only a little of the sensitivity of Willie Harris. Also, she clearly had not sung with him very much.” They began with the passionate slide tune “You’ll Need Somebody on Your Bond,” which Johnson would re-cut with Willie Harris at his final session four months later. Johnson re-tuned his guitar to standard and put away his slider for the next four songs. The bright-toned bass figures in “When the War Was On,” “Praise God I’m Satisfied,” “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There,” and “Take a Stand” fit the Texas country blues tradition of Blind Lemon Jefferson, and suggest that Johnson may have used a pick at the session. For his final song, Johnson re-tuned to open D and used a slider. Performing alone, he produced one of his very best records – “God Moves on the Water,” an exhilarating account of the Titanic tragedy. “I love ‘God Moves on the Water’ so much,” Cooder says. “That thing is like a roller coaster. He’s got an energy wave in there that he’s surfing across the face of that tune so mighty. He hits a chorus, and it’s just like ice skating or downhill racing. It’s an awesome physical thing that happens.”
Willie Harris was on hand – and in fine form – at Blind Willie Johnson’s final session, held in Atlanta on Sunday, April 20, 1930. In all, the duo recorded ten songs. The engineer moved Harris close to the microphone, and her sweet vocals imparted a lulling effect to the music. Singing call-and-response and harmony vocals in a gentle voice, Johnson effectively used his slide in “Can’t Nobody Hide from God,” which gave Harris as prominent a vocal role as his. Harris sang lead vocals in a rather lackluster version of the old white hymn “If It Had Not Been for Jesus.” As Charters aptly wrote of the tune, “It’s sentimentality and melodic triteness was poorly suited to Johnson’s style. It’s in 3/4 time, with simple chords, and his playing was limited to ordinary accompaniment. She sang the verses, and they sang in unison on the choruses. Her voice was sweet and direct, but nothing could help the song.” The pair followed the same pattern on the strangely titled “Go to Me With That Land,” which fans of 1960s folk music will recognize as “Come and Go With Me.”
Johnson and Harris picked up the pace for “The Rain Don’t Fall on Me,” “Trouble Will Soon Be Over,” “The Soul of a Man,” and “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right.” Still playing in standard tuning and without a slide, Johnson balanced chord strums with bass runs on these selections. Next came a rousing rendition of “Church I’m Fully Saved Today.” As Charters pointed out, “The form is a call and response, and he played an alternate chord strum that had some of the free swing of a jazz group. It isn’t difficult to close your eyes and hear the song with tambourines and more guitars – the entire congregation joined in on the responses, feet stamping on the floor and hands clapping. With only two voices and his guitar they caught the whole mood of Southern evangelism.” Johnson and Harris followed with another classic, “John the Revelator.” Johnson re-tuned to open D and used a slide on the final song, “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond,” which surpasses the version he’d recorded months earlier in New Orleans.
By 1930, the Depression was in full swing, and Columbia saw a precipitous drop in their record sales. Still, Blind Willie Johnson continued to outsell Bessie Smith and most of the label’s country blues artists. The company pressed a total of 2595 copies of the first release from Johnson’s 1930 session, “John the Revelator”/“You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond,” which came out that October. By contrast, only 800 copies were made of “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right”/“Go to Me with That Land,” making it one of the rarest of his 78s. The Depression deepened, and only 900 copies were pressed of the final Blind Willie Johnson 78 issued by Columbia, “Sweeter as the Years Go By”/“Take Your Stand,” which came out in October 1931. Blind Willie Johnson never recorded again for a major label. Angeline told Charters of their recording songs together at a small studio in Beaumont, but no record survives from this session.
The Later Years
After his final Columbia session, Blind Willie Johnson returned to Beaumont, where he’d live the rest of his life. Located along the Gulf of Mexico, Beaumont had been a major oil producer since the turn of the century. During the 1930s, the Work Projects Administration (WPA) ordered members of its Writers’ Program to prepare a report on Beaumont, which in 1930 had a population of 57,700. “The influx of Negro labor for the refineries, shipyards and wharves and for domestic services has increased this part of the population to nearly one-third of the total,” the WPA reported. “The city has a considerable Negro section with a motion picture theater, offices, churches, schools, stores, and many attractive homes. This section has its own lawyers, ministers, dentists, doctors, and teachers. Among its residents, however, there are those who practice ‘charms,’ whose lives are ruled by superstition, and whose picturesque manner of speech has crept into the current idiom.”
In Beaumont, Johnson sang at Mount Olive Baptist Church, sometimes accompanying the Silver Fleece Quartet and other younger singers. He also played along Forsythe Street, which ran through the heart of the city. In his later years, Charters described, Johnson “was heavier, his head usually shaved close. He dressed as neatly as he could, and the storekeepers along Forsythe remember him as a gentle, dignified man. During the winter, Angeline would lead him into the business district, and they would sing together in the noise and crowds of downtown Beaumont. Except for religious meetings like the encampment of the South Texas Missionary Baptist Association in Houston, they traveled very little.”
But according to Atlanta bluesman Blind Willie McTell, Johnson did travel extensively. Willie Harris recalled that the two men met in April 1930, when she and Johnson came to Atlanta to cut his final records. Three days earlier, McTell had recorded two songs of his own, “Talkin’ to Myself” and “Razor Ball.” (R.M.W. Dixon and J. Godrich’s essential reference book Blues & Gospel Records 1902-1943 lists McTell as playing guitar on Blind Willie Johnson’s final session, but the 78s themselves reveal that Johnson is the only guitarist.) During his 1940 Library of Congress session in Atlanta, McTell told John Lomax, “Blind Willie Johnson was a personal pal of mine. He and I played together on many different parts of the states and different parts of the country from Maine to Mobile Bay.” McTell recalled that Johnson used a steel ring for slide and that the two of them enjoyed playing “I Got to Cross the River Jordan” together. Lomax asked McTell if Johnson was a “good guitar picker.” McTell responded, “Excellent good!”
To my ears, it sounds as if Johnson had more influence on McTell than vice-versa. For instance, at their 1935 Decca session in Chicago, Blind Willie McTell and his wife Kate performed several old-time gospel slide tunes reminiscent of Blind Willie Johnson with Willie Harris. In addition, McTell’s 1940 L.O.C. performances of “I Got to Cross the River Jordan,” “Old Time Religion,” and “Amazing Grace” recalled Blind Willie Johnson’s 78s, especially in the way he’d use his slider to produce a string of notes and harmonic overtones from a single strike of the string. Lomax, in fact, introduced “I Got to Cross the River Jordan” by saying, “This is a song played by Blind Willie McTell, which he says he used to sing and play with Blind Willie Johnson.” McTell then quickly added, “This is a song that I’m gonna play that we all used to play in the country – an old jubilee melody.” Unlike Johnson, who played in open D, McTell played his version in open G capoed up two frets.
During World War II, Johnson reportedly broadcast spiritual music over radio stations KTEM in Temple, Texas, and KPLC in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Michael Corcoran’s painstaking research in Beaumont turned up a 1944 city directory that lists a Rev. W.J. Johnson operating the House of Prayer at 1440 Forest Street, which is the same address that appears on Blind Willie Johnson’s death certificate. If reports are accurate, Johnson’s death on September 18, 1945, was sad and avoidable. According to Angeline, their house caught fire. Afterwards, Johnson and his wife slept on a bed of newspapers atop the damp, charred remains. “He was sick the next morning,” Charters reported, “but he went out into the streets to try to earn a little money singing.” His condition worsened, and Angeline took him to a hospital. “They wouldn’t accept him,” she reported. “He’d be living today if they’d accepted him. They wouldn’t accept him because he was blind. Blind folks has a hard time.”
Johnny Winter was living in Beaumont at the time this occurred. “Boy, I really loved him,” Winter told me. “Some of his music was just the most amazing stuff I’ve ever heard. And there’s that record where Samuel Charters talked to his wife – I can’t listen to that without crying. I never met anyone who knew him, but he was there all that time. I wasn’t but five years old when he died. I heard they wouldn’t let him in the hospital because he was blind and black.” Blind Willie Johnson’s death certificate lists “malarial fever” as the primary cause, with “syphilis and blindness” as contributory causes. He was buried in the “colored section” of the Blanchette Cemetery in Beaumont.
Over the years, Blind Willie Johnson’s music has become deeply embedded in American culture. Its first inroads to a new generation came in 1950, when Folkways Records reissued “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” and “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying” on their anthology Jazz, Vol. 2: The Blues. Two years later, “John the Revelator” was included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. In 1957, Folkways issued Blind Willie Johnson: His Story, Told, Annotated and Documented by Samuel B. Charters. The first LP dedicated entirely to Blind Willie Johnson, this included the Angeline Johnson audio interview referred to by Johnny Winter.
During the early 1960s, Rev. Gary Davis taught Blind Willie Johnson’s music to up-and-coming folkies. Davis’ own version of “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down,” which he sometimes titled “Samson and Delilah,” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” inspired many subsequent covers. On his 1962 debut album, Bob Dylan recast “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” as “In My Time of Dying.” Peter, Paul & Mary recorded popular versions of “If I Had My Way” and “Go to Me With That Land,” which they properly re-titled “Come and Go With Me.” “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” was recorded by artists as diverse as Buffy Sainte-Marie, Donovan, Captain Beefheart, and Taj Mahal. I once had the pleasure of interviewing Pops Staples in a hotel room in San Francisco. When I asked about the guitar sound on vintage Staple Singers records, he picked up his guitar and played “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” “Blind Willie Johnson,” he said afterward with a smile. “That’s where I got that from.”
There’s a thin, sometimes indistinguishable, line between Blind Willie Johnson’s spiritual songs and old-time country blues, and it’s no surprise that many blues musicians adapted songs he popularized. Son House, for instance, recorded “Motherless Children” and a sublime a-cappella “John the Revelator.” Accompanied by the Hunter’s Chapel Singers, Mississippi Fred McDowell’s recorded a wonderful version of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” on Testment Records’ Amazing Grace album. Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb delighted concert audiences and record buyers with his pocketknife-slide versions of “God Moves on the Water,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and “Motherless Children,” which he said he learned from Johnson himself. Blind Willie Johnson entered into the rock and modern blues mainstreams through covers by the Blues Project, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, Ten Years After, Jorma Kaukonen, Eric Clapton, Phil Keaggy, Dave Hole, Ben Harper, Bruce Springsteen, the White Stripes, and many others. In 2003, Martin Scorsese named an episode of his seven-part BBC series, The Blues, after Johnson’s song “Soul of a Man.”
Blind Willie Johnson in the Zone
In 1977 NASA launched its Voyager 1 spacecraft to study our solar system and beyond. In case it’s ever discovered by extraterrestrials, included onboard is a gold-plated disc containing images, videos, and sounds of life on earth. Its contents were selected by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. Among its “The Sounds of the Earth” tracks are selections from Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Stravinsky, as well as Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven’s “Melancholy Blues,” Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and – you guessed it – Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground.”
For Further Reading:
Blind Willie McTell: http://jasobrecht.com/blind-willie-mctell-life-music/
Michael Corcoran’s article: http://www.austin360.com/music/content/music/blindwilliejohnson_092803.html
Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.
© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.