Nearly 90 years after he became one of Texas’ earliest black recording stars, the life of Blind Willie Johnson remains almost completely shrouded in mystery. The dearth of information on this sightless musician with the startling voice and the ethereal slide guitar style isn’t due to any lack of looking for it, either. Ever since Johnson’s inclusion on Harry Smith’s seminal, six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, music writers and amateur blues ethnographers have sought to rediscover a man who seemed to sing and play straight from a wounded soul, unencumbered by feeble flesh.
Here’s what we know for sure: Johnson was born in Pendleton, Texas, in 1897 and grew up around the town of Marlin. Beginning in his teenage years, Blind Willie was on the move, popping up in Dallas, Galveston, Houston, Corpus Christi and San Antonio as he traveled the state as a street-corner singer and preacher. Eventually, he settled in Beaumont, where he died from malarial fever in 1945. No headstone has ever been found.
But in 1977, a far more permanent monument to the man was loaded on to a rocket and fired into outer space. NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, bound for the farthest reaches of the galaxy, contained a kind of message in a bottle known as the Golden Record, intended to be found one day by some distant intelligent life. Alongside recordings of the human heartbeat and greetings in 55 languages, the gold-plated phonograph disc contains a selection of music. On this record, the music of Blind Willie Johnson has been sandwiched between Peruvian panpipes and Beethoven, preserved and immortalized for future eons.
Blind Willie’s music has been immortalized here on Earth, too, by the legion of artists who followed. Between 1927 and 1930, he cut 30 sides for Columbia Records at sessions in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta. They sold well, but the onset of the Great Depression shrank the recording industry and wiped away the demand for soul-quaking, apocalyptic gospel-blues. Blind Willie’s recording career was over, and his story was lost, seemingly for good. But his records survived. He influenced the likes of Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, who were later discovered by some of the most prominent folk and rock musicians of the ’60s and reinterpreted by Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead.
Each of them found in Blind Willie’s music a timelessness and elasticity that could be easily adapted for new (and often whiter) audiences. Most of Jimmy Page’s disciples never knew that “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “In My Time of Dying” were taken from a blind Pentecostal preacher who recorded in the ’20s, and they didn’t care. They liked what they heard.
Alligator Records is the latest commercial outfit to present a new twist on Blind Willie’s music. In February, the label released God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson. The compilation of covers was a labor of love by producer Jeffrey Gaskill, who also helmed the twice-Grammy-nominated comp Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan.
Dylan, of course, is one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th Century. Blind Willie, a primary influence on the folk explosion that birthed Dylan, still languishes in relative obscurity despite his far-reaching influence. Gaskill says he thinks it’s time the man had his day.
“My goal was to shine a light on Blind Willie Johnson, but also to create an album that stands on its own and represents him well,” the producer says. “He’s deserving and overdue, because it’s important stuff, and because it holds up. It’s as relevant today as it was then. He talks about things that are non-changing, that are relevant to every human being.”
Gaskill first had the idea to create a modern, musical tribute to Johnson all the way back in 2003, but making it happen was not a quick or easy process. He began working on the record in earnest in 2008, but couldn’t find a label willing to take a chance on the project. Eventually, he turned to Kickstarter, successfully raising more than $125,000 in part by offering cigar-box guitars handmade from wood salvaged from Johnson’s former home in Marlin as rewards for donors.
Then the real work began: bringing together all of the artists he wanted.
“I think Lucinda Williams was the first one I called,” Gaskill says. “She comes from that part of the country. She understands music that’s rooted in that type of blues, and she understands Pentecostalism. I figured it was something she’d be open to and that she’d do well.”
Williams would eventually record two full-band arrangements for God Don’t Never Change: “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and the title track. Each is a stomping amalgam of rock, blues and country, though Johnson’s versions were none of those things. Blind Willie sang songs inspired by gospel music and old hymns in his own, unique proto-blues style — all rough growls and sweet, bottleneck slide. There was certainly no fat backbeat to get people’s heads nodding. But as God Don’t Never Change proves, his heartfelt lyricism and simple, melodic progressions were so elemental they can still be comfortably transposed into a modern musical context, by artists as disparate as Tom Waits, Sinead O’Connor and the Cowboy Junkies.
“IF YOU PLAY ROOTS MUSIC, YOU’RE GOING TO END UP PLAYING BLIND WILLIE SONGS AND NOT EVEN KNOW IT.”
“The influence of the Blind Willie repertoire is so far-reaching,” says Luther Dickinson, the leader of the North Mississippi Allstars and onetime guitarist for the Black Crowes. “If you play roots music, you’re going to end up playing Blind Willie songs and not even know it.”
Dickinson turned in a version of Blind Willie’s “Bye and Bye I’m Going to See the King” for the compilation, performed in the endangered fife-and-drum blues tradition of Northern Mississippi. Johnson’s music has been a part of his musical vocabulary for as long as he can remember. Luther’s father, the pianist, producer and all-around Memphis legend Jim Dickinson, discovered Blind Willie while in college, and over the years he played and recorded a number of Johnson’s songs with his frequent collaborator, slide guitarist Ry Cooder.
As Cooder could probably tell you, it’s not easy to be a slide guitar player without picking up Blind
Willie’s influence from somewhere — or someone. Johnson’s twanging, trademark style has influenced every slide player who came after him, and even some of his famous contemporaries, such as Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell — one of Dickinson’s heroes. Even now, after his piercing melodies have been fully electrified by greats like Clapton and Page, it remains difficult to recreate the simple power of Johnson’s bottleneck gliding over his cheap guitar strings.
“There’s always been such a thing with the guitar players from Texas, and it goes all the way back to Blind Willie,” Dickinson says. “He’s one of the first guitar heroes in America — one of those original kings of the 78. But even if he came out now, it would still be totally unique guitar playing. He’s never really been matched. The song ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’ is a wordless, hummed instrumental. It’s an instrumental with just moaning. It’s one of the most bizarre pieces of American music I’ve ever heard.”
Ah, yes. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” It’s impossible to bring up Blind Willie Johnson without discussing that tune. It’s his most famous song — the one rocketed into the heavens by Voyager I & II alongside Beethoven and Bach. And it’s just barely a song — there are no words, no real rhythm to the piece. Just the pained sounds of a man who lived in darkness, playing his guitar from deeper down in his guts than maybe anybody else ever has, before or since. Inspired, some believe, by Jesus’ crucifixion, it is Johnson’s song to God. Born out of a life of hardship, it is Johnson’s song mourning God.
And all these years and all these players and all these records later, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” still retains every magical ounce of its ability to send a shudder through the soul of the sainted and the shunned alike. It’s because, listening to this unknown man’s quavering voice and weeping strings, we recognize that we, too, have lived through that night. We have slept on that ground. And if, untold millennia from now, that Golden Record is ever found by the far-away children of Johnson’s God? It’s hard to imagine they won’t recognize it, too.
Originally published in Spring 2016, No. 66