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|
Pendleton, Texas, United States
|Died||September 18, 1945
|Genres||Gospel, gospel blues|
Blind Willie Johnson (January 25, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was a gospel blues singer and guitarist. The lyrics of his songs were usually religious, and his music drew from both the sacred and the blues traditions, characterized by his slide guitar accompaniment and tenor voice, often with a lower-register "growl", or false bass voice.
Johnson was born in Pendleton, near Temple, Texas, in 1897. When he was five, he told his father he wanted to be a preacher and then made a cigar box guitar for himself. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried soon after her death.
Johnson was not born blind. It is not known how he lost his sight. His purported widow, Angeline Johnson, told Samuel Charters that when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man, and that out of spite she 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 is recounted in the liner notes of the Yazoo Records album Praise God I'm Satisfied. He was later alleged to have been married to a woman named Angeline, the woman Charters located in the years following Johnson's death. Johnson was also said to have been married to a sister of the blues musician L. C. Robinson. No marriage certificates have been discovered. As Angeline Johnson often sang and performed with him, Charters (the first to research his biography) erroneously assumed that it was she who sang on several of Johnson's records. Later research showed that the singer 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, in Beaumont. This is the 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 and 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 an interview, Angeline said that she tried to take him to a hospital, which refused to admit him because he was blind. Other sources report that the refusal was due to his being black.
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.
- Ford, Shane (2011). Shine a Light: My Year with "Blind" Willie Johnson. lulu.com. ISBN 978-1-4583-7155-3.
- Charters, Samuel (1993). The Complete Blind Willie Johnson. CD booklet. Columbia/Legacy C2K 52835.
- Corcoran, Michael. "The Soul of Blind Willie Johnson". Retrieved 2012-11-08.
- 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.
- 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.