Blind Willie Johnson
|Blind Willie Johnson|
The only known photograph of Johnson (cropped)
|Also known as||Blind Willie, Blind Texas Marlin, The Blind Pilgrim|
January 25, 1897|
Independence, Texas, United States
|Died||September 18, 1945
|Genres||Gospel, gospel blues|
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 -- 30 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 or recognition in his lifetime. His life was poorly documented and left to speculation; however, overtime music historians such as Samuel Charters have uncovered more about Johnson and his five recording sessions.
Johnson's music experienced a revival which began in the 1960s, in large due to the effort by blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. Overtime, Johnson's work has become more commercially accessible through compilation albums such as Blind Willie Johnson 1927-1930 and The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, both efforts spearheaded by Charters. As a result, Johnson is credited as one of the most influential practitioners of the blues and his slide guitar playing, particularly on his widely-covered hymn "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", is also highly praised. Other recordings by Johnson that have been interpreted on several different occasions include "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed", "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine", and "John the Revelator".
Johnson was born on January 25, 1897 in Independence, Texas, a small town twelve miles northeast of Brenham, to sharecropper George Johnson and his wife Mary Fields, who died in 1901. Around 1900, his family, which according to blues historian Steven Calt included at least one younger brother named Carl, moved to the agriculturally-rich community of Marlin where Johnson spent most of his childhood. There, the Johnson family attended church -- most likely the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church -- every Sunday, a practice which had a lasting impact on Johnson and fueled his desire to be ordained as a Baptist minister. When Johnson was five years-old, his father gave him his first instrument: a cigar box guitar.
Johnson was not born blind, though he was impaired with the disability at an early age. Although it is uncertain how he lost his sight, it is generally agreed upon by most biographers of Johnson that he was blinded by his step-mother when he was seven years-old, a claim that was first made by Johnson's purported widow Angeline Johnson. In her recollection, Willie Johnson's father had violently confronted his step-mother about a love affair, and during the argument she splashed Johnson with a caustic solution of lye water, permanently blinding him. Other theories have also been proposed to explain the reason behind Johnson's visual impairment, including him wearing the wrong spectacles, seeing a partial solar eclipse that was observable over Texas in 1905, or a combination of the two conjectures.
Little else seems to be known about Johnson's childhood, but at some point he met another blind musician named Madkin Butler, who had a powerful singing and preaching style that influenced Johnson's own vocal delivery and repertoire. A blind minister named Adam Booker was interviewed by blues historian Samuel Charters in the 1950s, recalling Johnson would perform secular songs on street corners while visiting his father in Hearne with a tin cup tied to the neck of his Stella guitar to collect money. Occasionally, Johnson would play on the same street as Blind Lemon Jefferson, but the extent of the two songsters' involvement with each other is unknown.
Johnson was married twice, to Willie B. Harris and then Angeline Johnson, but it is unlikely that either union was officially registered. Throughout the Great Depression and the 1940s, he earned a meager wage performing in several cities and towns in Texas, including Beaumont. A city directory shows that in 1945, a Reverend W. J. Johnson—undoubtedly Blind Willie—operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, in Beaumont. In 1945, his home was destroyed by a fire, but Johnson was impoverished and forced to continue to live in the ruins of his house where he was left exposed to the humidity. He contracted malarial fever, yet no hospital would admit Johnson because of his visual impairment. Over the course of the year, his condition steadily worsened until Johnson died on September 18, 1945. His death certificate reported that syphilis and blindness were also contributing factors.
According to his death certificate, he was buried in Blanchette Cemetery, in Beaumont. The location of that cemetery had been forgotten until it was rediscovered in 2009. His grave site remains unknown, but the researchers who identified the cemetery erected a monument there in his honor in 2010.
Traditional blues song recorded in 1928 by Johnson and his first wife
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Johnson's 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 arrested while singing for tips in front of the Customs House by a police officer who misconstrued the title lyric and mistook it for incitement.
Johnson made 30 commercial studio records (29 songs) in five sessions for Columbia Records from 1927 to 1930. On some of these recordings he used a fast, rhythmic picking style, and on others he played slide guitar. According to a reputed one-time acquaintance, Blind Willie McTell (1898–1959), Johnson played with a brass ring, but the bluesman Tom Shaw, interviewed by Guido van Rijn in 1972, said that he used a knife. However, the only known photograph of Johnson seems to show a 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 that there is a slide on it.
Several of Johnson's songs have been interpreted by other musicians, including "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed", "It's Nobody's Fault But Mine", "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", "John the Revelator", "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond", "Motherless Children" and "Soul of a Man".
"Dark Was the Night" is one of the music tracks on the Voyager Golden Record, copies of which were placed on both the unmanned Voyager Project space probes in 1977. It is the penultimate track, preceding the Cavatina from Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 130: the blind musician and the deaf, side by side. The astronomer Timothy Ferris, who worked with Carl Sagan in selecting the tracks, said,
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.
“Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” was used on the Oscar-nominated soundtrack to Pier Paolo Pasolini's classic film, The Gospel According to St Matthew, in scenes where Judas Iscariot laments betraying Christ and a cripple asks to be healed. Ry Cooder's slide guitar on the title song and soundtrack music of the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas (1984) is based on "Dark Was the Night".
- Blakey, D.N. (2007). Revelation Blind Willie Johnson The Biography. DNB45 Publishing. pp. 4–6. ISBN 978-1-4303-2899-5.
- Ford, Shane (2011). Shine a Light: My Year with "Blind" Willie Johnson. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-4583-7155-3.
- Pinkard, Ryan. "Dark Was the Night: The Legacy of Blind Willie Johnson". read.tidal.com. Retrieved October 17, 2016.
- Charters, Smauel (1965). Blind Willie Johnson 1927-1930 (PDF) (liner notes). Smithsonian Folkways. RBF-10.
- Layne, Joslyn. "Blind Willie Johnson - Biography". allmusic.com. Retrieved October 17, 2016.
- Charters, Smauel (1993). The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (CD booklet). Columbia Legacy. CK 52836.
- Hall, Michael. "The Soul of a Man". texasmonthly.com. Retrieved October 17, 2016.
- Blakey, D.N. (2007). Revelation Blind Willie Johnson The Biography. DNB45 Publishing. pp. 8–9. ISBN 978-1-4303-2899-5.
- Carlson, James. "Dark Was the Night: The Life and Times of Blind Willie Johnson". nodepression.com. Retrieved October 17, 2016.
- Ford, Shane (2011). Shine a Light: My Year with "Blind" Willie Johnson. pp. 169–170. ISBN 978-1-4583-7155-3.
- Charters, Samuel (1993). The Complete Blind Willie Johnson. CD booklet. Columbia/Legacy C2K 52835.
- Koda, Cub. "Blind Willie Johnson: The Complete Blind Willie Johnson". allmusic.com. Retrieved February 2, 2015.
- Blakey, D. N. (2007). Revelation: Blind Willie Johnson, the Biography. Online: Lulu Publishing. p. 68.
- Ferris, Timothy (1978). Sagan, Carl, ed. Murmurs of Earth. New York City: Ballantine Books. p. 178. ISBN 978-0345315366.
- Cadoni, Alessandro (2005). "Cinema e musica 'classica': il caso di Bach nei film di Pasolini". De Musica: Annuario in Divenire (in Italian). Il Seminario. 9.
- 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.