Blind Willie Johnson
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|"Blind" Willie Johnson|
A crop of the only known photograph of Johnson.
|Also known as||"Blind" Willie, "Blind" Texas Marlin, The Blind Pilgrim|
January 22, 1897|
Brenham, Texas, United States
|Died||September 18, 1945
Beaumont, Texas, United States
"Blind" Willie Johnson (January 22, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was a gospel blues singer and guitarist.
While the lyrics of his songs were often religious, his music drew from both sacred and blues traditions and is distinguished by his powerful bass thumb-picking and gravelly false-bass voice, with occasional use of a tenor voice.
Blind Willie Johnson, according to his death certificate, was born in 1897 near Brenham, Texas, United States (before the discovery of his death certificate, Temple, Texas had been suggested as his birthplace). When he was five, he told his father he wanted to be a preacher and then made himself a cigar box guitar. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried soon after her death.
Johnson was not born blind, and, although it is not known how he lost his sight, Angeline Johnson told Samuel Charters that when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man. According to this account, the stepmother then blinded young Willie by throwing lye in his face.
It is believed that Johnson married at least twice. He was married to Willie B. Harris. Her recollection of their initial meeting was recounted in the liner notes for Yazoo Records's "Praise God I'm Satisfied" album. He was later alleged to have been married to a woman named Angeline. Johnson was also said to be married to a sister of blues artist, L.C. Robinson. No marriage certificates have yet been discovered. As Angeline Johnson often sang and performed with him, the first person to attempt to research his biography, Samuel Charters, made the mistake of assuming it was Angeline who had sung on several of Johnson's records. However, later research showed that it was Willie B. Harris.
Johnson remained poor until the end of his life, preaching and singing in the streets of several Texas cities including Beaumont. A city directory shows that in 1945, a Rev. W.J. Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, Beaumont, Texas. This is the same address listed on Johnson's death certificate. In 1945, his home burned to the ground. With nowhere else to go, Johnson lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a wet bed in the August/September Texas heat. He lived like this until he contracted malarial fever and died on September 18, 1945. (The death certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.) In a later interview, his wife, Angeline said she tried to take him to a hospital but they refused to admit him because he was blind, while other sources report that his refusal was due to being black. And although there is some question as to where his exact grave location is, Blanchette Cemetery (which is the cemetery listed on the death certificate but location previously unknown) was officially located by two researchers in 2009. In 2010, those same researchers erected a monument to Johnson in the cemetery, but his exact gravesite remains unknown.
Musical career 
The traditional blues song recorded in 1928 by Blind Willie Johnson and his first wife
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His father would often leave him on street corners to sing for money. Tradition has it that he was arrested for nearly starting a riot at a New Orleans courthouse with a powerful rendition of "If I Had My Way I'd Tear The Building Down", a song about Samson and Delilah. According to Samuel Charters, however, he was simply arrested while singing for tips in front of a Custom House, by a police officer who misconstrued the title lyric and mistook it for incitement. Timothy Beal argued that the officer did not, in fact, misconstrue the meaning of the song, but that "the ancient story suddenly sounded dangerously contemporary" to him.
Johnson made 30 commercial recording studio record sides in five separate sessions for Columbia Records from 1927–1930. On some of these recordings Johnson uses a fast rhythmic picking style, while on others he plays slide guitar. According to a reputed one-time acquaintance, Blind Willie McTell (1898–1959), Johnson played with a brass ring, although other sources cite him using a knife. However, in enlargement, the only known photograph of Johnson seems to show that there is an actual bottleneck on the little finger of his left hand. While his other fingers are apparently fretting the strings, his little finger is extended straight—which also suggests there is a slide on it as well.
Some of Johnson's most famous recordings include "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" (later covered as "In My Time of Dying" on later recordings), "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine", his rendition of the gospel song "Let Your Light Shine On Me", as well as "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", where he sang in wordless hum and moans about the crucifixion of Jesus. This song was a "moaning" piece related to the Bentonia school of blues practiced by such "eerie voiced" artists as Skip James and Robert Johnson. On 14 of his recordings he is accompanied by Willie B Harris, or an as-yet-unidentified female singer. This group of recordings included "Church I'm Fully Saved Today", "John the Revelator", "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond", "Soul of a Man", and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning".
Johnson's records have become influential, and his songs have been covered by several popular artists, including Led Zeppelin. "John the Revelator" was also recorded by delta blues musician Son House and again by Steve Vai on his 2012 album The story of light, with Beverly McClellan on vocals. Depeche Mode also recorded a song "John the Revelator / Lilian" which was inspired by Johnson's song, and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" was recorded by another delta blues musician, Fred McDowell.
"If I Had My Way I'd Tear The Building Down" was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary; retitled as "Samson and Delilah". The song was frequently performed by the Grateful Dead and appears on their studio album Terrapin Station; Gary Davis also recorded a version; and Bruce Springsteen has performed a version of the song live with the Seeger Sessions Band.
"Dark was the Night" was also included on the Voyager Golden Record, copies of which were mounted on both of the Voyager spacecraft which are currently exploring the outer edges of our solar system, on their way to interstellar space. The story of Blind Willie Johnson and the inclusion of his music on Voyager is referenced in the episode The Warfare of Genghis Khan of the television series The West Wing.
See also 
- Corcoran, Michael. "The Soul of Blind Willie Johnson". Retrieved 2012-11-8.
- Charters, Samuel (1993). The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (CD booklet). Columbia/Legacy C2K 52835.
- Ford, Shane (2011). Shine a Light: My Year with "Blind" Willie Johnson. lulu.com. ISBN 978-1-4583-7155-3.
- Beal, Timothy (2011). The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 176–178. ISBN 978-0-15-101358-6.
- Stefan Wirz. "Blind Willie Johnson Discography". Retrieved 24 August 2011.
- "Voyager - Music From Earth". NASA. Retrieved 24 August 2011.
- Charters, Samuel (1959). The Country Blues. United Kingdom: Jazz Book Club. — Some facts in the book are at variance with those given in this article and may represent an earlier stage of research
- D. N. Blakey (August 2007). Revelation Blind Willie Johnson the Biography.. LULU PR. ISBN 978-1-4303-2899-5. Retrieved 30 August 2011.
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