Celebrating Blind Willie Johnson - Gospel Blues - " John the Revelator "

February 27, 2011 | Bill V.

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I first heard Blind Willie Johnson on the Ryerson radio station CKLN in the mid 1980s on a late night gospel and blues show.   When I recently read  the CRTC had revoked their license, it brought to mind the pleasure I had in listening to the station and the exposure it gave me to rare music in a time before Youtube and the Internet.

Blind Willie Johnson lived a difficult life of hardship, poverty and racism.  He was blinded as a young boy by his stepmother who threw lye in his face (whether intentionally or not is unclear).  To support himself he sang on street corners with a guitar and pocket knife or bottle neck slide. Between 1927 and 1930 he recorded about 30 sides and then returned to street singing.  His recordings were part of the Race Record phenomenon that marketed 78 rpm phonographs to African Americans that started the careers of many famous black musicians and singers. The Okeh Record company  and Vocalion were especially associated with this idea.

He died in tragic circumstances soon after his house burned down. Having no where else to go he slept in the damp ruins and caught pneumonia or malaria and was possibly refused admittance to the local hospital due to his blindness.  Like many black singers of this era his grave was unknown and unmarked. There was a successful movement afoot to erect a memorial marker although there is some controversy even about this. 

 

 

 

 

It is both his gravelly and emotionally vibrant voice and his exceptional slide guitar playing technique which makes him stand out as a performer and which has influenced  later musicians.  If you're not deeply moved by his version of the traditional gospel song "John the Revelator", then surely you must be made of stone.  The call and response is a typical feature of gospel music.  As with so much of his life, there is even mystery around the identity of the woman who is singing (likely his first wife Willie B. Harris but possibly his second wife Angeline or  Anna Bell Robinson ). 

 

   

Blind Willie Johnson's song "Dark Was The Night ( Cold Was The Ground )"  was included on the Golden Records "The Sounds of Earth" recording that was sent into space with the Voyager One space probe in 1977.  This compilation of humanity's best music  will serve as an introduction to whatever life may exist in space of music on the planet Earth. Recorded by Johnson in December 1928, the song opens with a slide-guitar run followed quickly by Johnson's mournful moan and almost wordess expression of emotion.

 

Encyclopedia of American gospel music    Songsters and saints vocal traditions on race records   The Penguin guide to blues recordings   People get ready a new history of Black gospel music


Blind Willie Johnson was a gospel singer and guitar evangelist (and possibly a Baptist preacher as well) and although he did not record any secular songs he is also influential on early Blues music.  In researching his life it is fruitful to use books from both subject areas.  Samuel Charters did much early research on Johnson and produced two LP records including an interview with Angeline Johnson, Blind Willie's second wife.  Charters also did extensive research, writing and publishing on other gospel, jazz, African and blues singers.  He has a chapter on Blind Willie in his book The Country Blues. As well in the early 1950s Harry Smith gathered a great deal of early recordings and research in Anthology of American Folk Music - originally a LP collection but reissued as 6 Cds and 2 extensive booklets of information.

 

The complete Blind Willie Johnson CD

 

There is lots available on CD and also on Youtube for Blind Willie Johnson - he is on many compilations as well as having some solo recordings.  The complete Blind Willie Johnson CD above has an extensive collection of notes and lyrics including sections written by Samuel Charters who interviewed Angeline Johnson.

 

There are the many artists who did covers of his songs afterwards. Led Zeppelin did a version of "Nobody's Fault but Mine" - the gossip is they didn't credit him for the song on the album notes - although I have to say in terms of performance and wordless expressions of emotion it's bang on.  Nick Cave did a cover version of "John the Revelator" which I found painful to listen to initially even though the McGarrigle Sisters are the backup.  For a more "pure" version  you may want to listen to Son House's cover in live performance (there is also a tamer studio version).

 

 

Let me know what your favourite Blind Willie Johnson song is by leaving a comment.

This blog was edited Dec 7 2011 to add a "John the Revelator" Youtube link and delete one sentence referring to a lack of such links on Youtube, and also replace an out of date Son House Youtube clip. Bill V.

 

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