Thursday, February 11, 2021

JOHNSON WEEK continued: Blind Willie Johnson


From the vault July 23, 2019. plus additional.


From that excellent Presidential TV series The West Wing:

“Voyager, in case it's ever encountered by extraterrestrials, is carrying photos of life on earth, greetings in fifty-five languages, and a collection of music from Gregorian chant to Chuck Berry, including "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" by 1920s bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, whose stepmother blinded him at seven by throwing lye in his eyes after his father beat her for being with another man. He died penniless of pneumonia after sleeping bundled in wet newspapers in the ruins of his house that burned down, but his music just left the solar system.”

- Josh, The West Wing


For you, Noel


The only known photograph of Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson (January 25, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was an American gospel blues singer, guitarist and evangelist. His landmark recordings completed between 1927 and 1930—thirty songs in total—display a combination of powerful "chest voice" singing, slide guitar skills, and originality that has influenced later generations of musicians. Even though Johnson's records sold well, as a street performer and preacher he had little wealth in his lifetime. His life was poorly documented, but over time music historians such as Samuel Charters have uncovered more about Johnson and his five recording sessions.

A revival of interest in Johnson's music began in the 1960s, following his inclusion on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and by the efforts of the blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. Johnson's work has become more accessible through compilation albums such as American Epic: The Best of Blind Willie Johnson and the Charters compilations. As a result, Johnson is credited as one of the most influential practitioners of the blues, and his slide guitar playing, particularly on his hymn "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", is highly acclaimed. Other recordings by Johnson include "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed", "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine", and "John the Revelator".

In 1977, Carl Sagan and a team of researchers were tasked with collecting a representation of Earth and the human experience for sending on the Voyager probe to other life forms in the universe. Among the 27 songs selected for the Voyager Golden Record, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" was chosen by NASA consultant Timothy Ferris because, according to Ferris, "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".

Click on the following link for Dark Was the Night, Cold was the Ground:


Additional material:

From Wikipedia:

Johnson is considered one of the masters of blues, particularly of the gospel blues style. Like his contemporary Blind Lemon Jefferson, Johnson channelled the expressiveness of the blues into his religious messages derived from hymnbooks. Samuel Charters, in the liner notes to the compilation album The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, wrote that, in fact, Johnson was not a bluesman in the traditional sense, "but here still is so much similarity between his relentless guitar rhythms and his harsh, insistent voice, and the same fierce intensities of the blues singers, that they become images of each other, seen in the mirror of the society that produced them".

An important aspect of Johnson's recordings was his mastering of the bottleneck guitar technique, which was immediately influential on Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf. He punctuated his selections with tonal control and sense of timing, often using the guitar as a part of his harmonic phrasing, particularly on "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground". By most accounts, including one by the reputable blues guitarist Blind Willie McTell, Johnson used a knife as a slide, but other claims by Harris and the bluesman Thom Shaw also state he used a thumb pick or brass ring on his recordings. The music historian Steve Calt said of Johnson's style: "opposed to other bottleneck artists he varies the speed of his vibrato drastically, often speeding up as he slides into a note. He is also one of the few bottleneck artists with the ability to consistently sound 3 or 4 discreet melody notes upon striking a string once, a skill that reflects uncanny left-handed strength, accuracy and agility".

Johnson sang in a harsh, gravelly bass voice that was meant to be powerful enough to be heard by passersby on the streets. His vocal interplay was described by the blues writer Mark Makin as "fierce" and "not unlike the 'Hell and Damnation' of a Baptist preacher such as a fired-up Reverend A. W. Nix". On some instances in his recordings, Johnson also delivered vocals in his natural tenor voice. The only known influence on Johnson's singing style is the blind musician Madkin Butler, who, like Johnson, sang his religious message on the streets of Texas cities.



More Johnson audio clips:

John the Revelator

Trouble Will Soon Be Over

Nobody’s Fault But Mine

The Soul of a Man

Let Your Light Shine on Me


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