By Mike Greenblatt
“Ah Lord, ah Lord, year of 1912, April the 14th day,
Great Titanic struck an iceberg people had to run and pray.
God moves, moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray.
Captain Smith gave orders, women and children first,
Many of the lifeboats piled right up, many were liable to crush,
And the people had to run and pray…”
It was Blind Willie Johnson who once moaned and groaned “Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground” so emotionally and profoundly that his wordless recording filled with grunts was sent up into outer space by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1977 as part of its Voyager Golden Record space launch. NASA figured if aliens from other planets discovered it, they’d know a little something about mankind. A point of fact, Blind Willie was one of the first true fusion artists, fusing primal blues invigorated by his stellar bottleneck slide guitar and gravel-pit voice with the raw urgency of gospel in his fire and brimstone lyrics.
“God Moves On the Water” was recorded for Columbia Records in New Orleans when representatives from the great label of the North went on a field expedition throughout Louisiana to try and find regional talent. It’s safe to say they hit the jackpot with the blind singing songwriting preaching Texan.
It was on a Wednesday in 1929, December 11, and Johnson that day attacked his guitar with the kind of ferocity that rock stars of the future would lay claim to. He was bemoaning the fate of those doomed passengers on the inaugural voyage of the Titanic when it met its maker in the form of an unalterable iceberg. Columbia Records knew it had a future star. The flip side was “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There.” Asked back again, Blind Willie laid down some more history when on a Sunday, in Atlanta GA, April 30, he dazzled anew.
Blind Willie Johnson was born in Pendleton, Texas on January 25, 1897. Starting out as Texas Marlin The Blind Pilgrim, he left home as a teen to escape his violent sharecropping parents, one of whom accidently blinded him at the age of seven with a bucket of lye carelessly aimed at the other for a perceived infidelity. He became a popular evangelist before he ever stepped into a recording studio. He traveled throughout the south preaching, singing and stinging that old guitar of his, oftentimes with his wife in tow. Settling in 1945 Beaumont, Texas, he had a church-like storefront where people would come for miles around to see the amazing guitarist and singer with hellfire in his sermons. He had already recorded all that he would record, some 30 sides, now considered classics.
Then his church burned down.
He was living there at the time with his wife who promptly moved out when the ashes got too dangerous. Not Blind Willie, for Willie had a calling stronger than any fire. When no one came to hear him preach, he’d preach to the surrounding coyotes, mesmerizing himself with the sound of his own voice. He kept stinging that guitar too, perfecting a style that was thankfully caught on record enough times for generations after him to study and copy.
He kept playing when he got sick. There was no one to treat him for his malaria. He tried to go to a nearby all-white hospital when it got real bad but was refused admittance. Then he contracted syphillis and died on September 18, 1945, never having moved from that burned-out hovel of a home.
History has been kind to Blind Willie. In 1952, he was written up in the Anthology of American Folk Music. The Reverend Gary Davis, himself a popular fusion artist of blues and gospel, operating in New York City, constantly spoke his praises. There then came a stunning series of cover versions of his material by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Staple Singers, Fairport Convention, Peter, Paul and Mary, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and The Soul Stirrers (featuring a very young Sam Cooke).
John Tefteller, of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records, explains “there’s a lot of stuff on him out there to buy but 99% of it is straight gospel. He only did a few blues recordings. Some weren’t even ever released.
“(His records) turn up every now and again mainly because they sold reasonably well but you usually don’t see them in pristine condition. They’re almost always banged up to some degree. You can buy a banged up one for a few hundred dollars but if you want one that is really cherry mint, you’ll be searching for a pretty long time and spending about $2,000.”
One of the best blues CDs of 2013 was God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson (Alligator Records) with Tom Waits, The Tedeschi Trucks Band, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Sinead O’Connor, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Rickie Lee Jones and others, all interpreting the man who refused to leave his home after it burned down to the ground.