My first introduction to the music of Blind Willie Johnson came in 2002. The guitar teacher at CORE Arts in Hackney, had encouraged me to have a go at learning to play the slide guitar. As a result I got a slide guitar compilation out of the library. There was some great stuff on the record. About half way through following straight after a track by the mighty Son House, was You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond, by Blind Willie Johnson.
His gruff voice, accompanied by a gentler woman’s voice, really grabbed my attention, as did his slide guitar playing. Soon after this experience I bought a copy of the compilation Dark Was The Night. When I played it I realised that I had heard some of these songs before by other artists but hadn’t realised where they had come from.
Blind Willie Johnson was born near a town called Brenham in Texas on 22 January 1897. While growing up he attended the Church Of God In Christ. This is one of the Afro American churches that was set up after the abolition of slavery. It was a church that encouraged enthusiastic music making. Two other fine gospel singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Georgia Peach also attended the church. When Willie was five, he told his father that he wanted to be a preacher. He made himself a cigar box guitar. However around this time his mother died and soon after her death his father remarried. So the story goes, Willie lost his sight when he was seven. His father gave his step-mother a beating after catching her going out with another man. In revenge the step-mother threw lye water (detergent) into the young lads face, in doing so blinding him.
Blind Willie Johnson had a powerful singing voice. Because of this his father would often send him out on the street to sing for tips. He learned piano and taught himself to play guitar in regular tuning, while using open D for slide. Many of his lyrics and songs were gathered from old hymnals. He played at church functions where he developed incomparable timing and tone, using a pocket knife as a slider.
The 1920s saw him performing on the streets of a place called Herne in Texas. He had a cup wired to his guitar for people to put tips in. In 1926 Willie married his first wife - Willie B Harris. His recording career started the following year. His first session took place in Dallas Texas in 1927. His first 78 release was I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole backed by Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. At the time of its release, it was proclaimed: ‘This new and exclusive Columbia artist sings sacred songs in a way you have never heard before. Be sure to hear his first record, and listen closely to that original guitar accompaniment.’ The hype was true, and the records popularity quickly made Johnson one of Columbia’s best selling artists. Despite this popularity Blind Willie Johnson only received one small payment for the recording, He received no royalties. As such he continued to make a living as a street singer. The second release ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ and ‘Dark Was The Night,’ was reviewed in a national magazine, Bookman. The review spoke of Johnson’s ‘violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans, and his inspired guitar playing in a primitive and frightening Negro religious song.’ Chant, moans, and ghostly slide. 'Dark Was The Night' was based on an old hymn about the crucifixion.
The term race music was used to describe Afro American music of the day, blues, gospel, jazz etc. Music made by poor white people was called hillbilly music. This was early country music. Despite the racial climate of those times, and the segregation and inequalities that existed, there was interaction between the blues and country music. One example being a blues group called the Mississippi Sheiks. They had a fiddle in their line up, and for me they had a country feel to their sound. The Mississippi Sheiks were around during the 1930s. They are known for songs such as ‘I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You' and 'World Gone Wrong'. Bob Dylan recorded 'World Gone Wrong' in the early 1990s on the second of two albums of old folk songs that he made at the time. Another example of the blues influence on country music can be heard in the Carter Family.
One of the first tracks that I got into on Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night’ compilation was ‘Motherless Children Have A Hard Time’ - written from first hand experience. First there is the slide guitar and the cries of well, well, well, then he starts singing in a powerful gruff voice. This song really made me sit up and listen. Its sentiments are universal, and fully relevant today. Then comes 'Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground' - a haunting atmospheric wordless hymn in which Blind Willie Johnson plays some beautiful slide guitar and sings in a wordless moan. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I have ever heard.
Blind Willie Johnson often sang in a voice that was used to making himself heard over the noise of the street. However he sometimes sang in a softer more tender voice – and one example of this is his singing on ‘Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning’. It’s a deeply spiritual song on which he is accompanied by the voice of his wife Willie B Harris. Sometimes they sing in harmony, sometimes Willie B Harris finishes off lines in the song. Halfway through the song there is a beautiful slide solo.
I began listening closer to the songs. ‘If I Had My Way I Would Tear This Building Down’ tells the story of Samson and Delilah. Johnson’s powerful vocal makes Samson’s struggle seem like it was a contemporary event that took place around the time when he recorded the song. ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ features some powerful vocals and slide playing. On ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed’ he uses the slide guitar to finish the lines to powerful effect. Then there was ‘John The Revalator’ where he again duets with Willie B Harris. Some of the early recordings have an eerie quality to them. Several other songs on the CD – eg ‘Praise God I’m Satisfied’, and ‘Come And Go With Me To That Land’ – are a testament to the strength of his Faith.
I came across an interesting article about the life of their daughter Sam Fay Johnson Kelly recently. She still lives in Marlin Texas in the same house where she was born in 1931 - a four room shack with a sagging roof and walls warped by the heat. Now in her 70s she is in a wheelchair and helped out by her grandchildren. In the interview she recalls her father playing his guitar and singing in the kitchen. She remembers him reciting from the bible. Her mother worked seven days a week as a nurse, while her father was busking on the streets.
By the time she was seven Blind Willie Johnson went travelling. He ventured all over Texas singing in churches on the street and at railway stations in company with Blind Willie McTell. A blues artist known for songs such as ‘Broken Down Engine’ and ‘Statesbrough Blues’, he started singing gospel songs towards the end of his life in the 1950s. Together they wrote some impressive songs sometimes sharing the same studio. Their travels took them as far as New Orleans. Legend has it that while singing 'If I Had My Way I Would Tear This Building Down' outside a New Orleans courthouse, Blind Willie Johnson started a riot. However other reports suggest that the police arrested him because they misunderstood the lyrics, and took them to be incitement.
During this period in America there were a large number of blind Afro American street musicians. The only opportunities left open to a blind person were to be a beggar or to be a musician. Obviously being a musician was the preferable of the two choices, and these guys helped to lay the foundations for Rock and Roll.
On April 20th 1930 Blind Willie Johnson made his final recordings. However he carried on working as a street singer. He married his second wife Angeline, who sang with him on the street. He settled in Beaumont, Texas, where he sang on Beaumont Street. Shopkeepers remembered him as a gentle dignified man who dressed neatly and wore close cropped hair. Blind Willie Johnson and Angeline regularly sang at the Mt Olive Baptist Church and occasionally journeyed to Huston for revivals. People also recalled hearing him over KTM, a radio station in Temple Texas as well as a Sunday morning church service broadcast over KPLC radio based in Lake Charles Texas. Huston based music historian Mack McCormick said how Johnson left memories at Corpus Christi during World War Two, when there was a fear of Nazi submarines prowling the Gulf Of Mexico. Submarines often listened to radio stations to triangulate their position. He went on air with new verses to one of his songs ‘God Moves On The Water’, a song about the Titanic. First offering grace to his audience, he then followed with a dire warning to the crew of any listening U Boats with, ‘Can’t Nobody Hide from God’. I don’t know if any of these recordings still exist?
Blind Willie Johnson remained poor until the end of his life. A Beaumont city directory showed that in 1944 a Rev W J Johnson operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street. This is thought to be Blind Willie Johnson as this is the same address as that listed on his death certificate. In 1945 his home burnt down in a fire. With nowhere else to go, he and his wife slept inside the burnt ruins of their home on a bed of damp newspapers. They carried on singing on the streets during the day. Then a few days later he fell ill with pneumonia. Angeline took him to a local hospital. However he was refused admission on the grounds that he was black, (some accounts say that it was because he was blind). He died a couple of days later. His death certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever with syphilis as a contributing factor. But as it also lists blindness as a contributing factor, which makes the coroner’s thoroughness very suspect.
In 1953 music historian Samuel Charters interviewed Angeline who confirmed the facts of his death. What happened to Blind Willie Johnson at the end of his life, is an example of the discrimination and injustice that took place in America in those days. However his music lives on, and in many ways his spirit does too. Many musicians and bands from diverse musical backgrounds have recorded Blind Willie Johnson’s songs. The Reverend Garry Davis taught the songs to people on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s and from there the numbers of recordings just kept on growing. Blind Willie Johnson's influence on contemporary music is vast.
There are plans to give back royalties to his surviving family. Hopefully these plans will be successful. Nobody quite knows where his grave is, though. It is thought that he was buried in Beaumont’s Blanchet cemetery, a seemingly unattended piece of land overrun with weeds where members of the Afro American community were often buried. The people of Beaumont are dedicated to finding his grave and preserving it.
In relation to his slide playing, the common theory is that Blind Willie Johnson used a pocket knife as a slide. Blind Willie McTell said Johnson used a metal ring. I have a friend who is an accomplished guitarist, who has suggested that he used a bottle as a slider. In the only known picture of him he sits at a piano holding a guitar. No sliding instrument can be seen. What ever he did use one fact remains. Blind Willie Johnson is one of the all-time great slide players.
Unfortunately not much is known about his life. His real year of birth – often recorded as 1902 – has only recently been confirmed as 1897, since the discovery of a birth certificate. The Guinness Who’s Who Of The Blues suggest that Johnson also made blues recordings under a different name. Wikipedia suggests he was also known as ‘Blind’ Texas Marlin. Does this mean that there are still some unreleased recordings? Another question I’d like to ask is, did Blind Willie McTell get interviewed in the 1950s? Did he shed any light on his partnership with Blind Willie Johnson?
Blind Willie Johnson’s spirit is still very much alive. In 1977 when the Voyager spacecraft was sent into space to orbit the earth, ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’, was one of the tracks chosen to be included on the voyager Golden Record. (The other tracks included Beethoven and Chuck Berry.) On a street corner in heaven Blind Willie Johnson is surely singing to the angels.