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Blind Willie Johnson's emotional singing eclipses his music, lyrics

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. So what is the exchange rate behind the the raw emotion of Blind Willie Johnson's performance of ‘Dark Was the Night — Cold Was The Ground’ (Columbia 14303-D).

By Mike Greenblatt

The deep blues music of Blind Willie Johnson is so profound on “Dark Was The Night — Cold Was The Ground” that he doesn’t even need words to convey its singular essence.

It starts with some mysterious bottleneck slide guitar, setting the scene with notes that seem to come at you from down below. Johnson was a masterful musician, wrenching every last drop of soul from that guitar. Then he starts in with heavy-breath moaning, moaning his blues for all he’s worth. Words are superfluous here, as a darker and more sinister force is at work. There’s more meaning in those guttural moans captured on Columbia 14303-D than in a thousand thesauruses.

Blind Willie Johnson Columbia

Until now, the only complete photograph of Blind Willie Johnson was found in the 1960s in New Orleans by Bill Russell, but it was a very grainy print from a newspaper story about Johnson being signed to Columbia. The photo of Johnson shown here was taken from a 1928 Columbia promotional flyer that was given to record shops. It was discovered by Blues Images and incorporated into the company’s 2013 calendar. Courtesy Blues Images.

The record — the fifth song recorded on Dec. 3, 1927, at Johnson’s debut Columbia session in Dallas — is proof positive that you don’t need words to get your point across, to communicate the deep, pure feeling of the blues. Musically, it’s clear, detailed, crisp of treble and unmuffled — rare for that year. The performance now stands as one of the greatest blues records of all time, so much so that it was launched into space in 1977 on the Voyager Golden Record, along with 26 other examples of human culture picked to represent the diversity of life on Earth.

The song “turns up every now and again, mainly because it sold reasonably well. But,” John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records warns, “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’s really cherry mint, you’ll be searching for a pretty long time and spending about $2,000.”

Its too bad for blues fans that Blind Willie Johnson didn’t devote more energy to the blues. He’s that good. But, gospel was his calling.

“There’s a lot of stuff on him, but 99 percent of it is straight gospel,” explains Tefteller. “He only did a few blues recordings. Some weren’t even ever released.”

Johnson was born in Texas; historical accounts differ on the year, which ranges from 1897 to 1902. He was left blind at age 7 when his stepmother accidentally threw lye in his face. (She was aiming for the face of his father during one of their violent arguments.) Johnson played guitar on the street, using his pocketknife as a slide. He was so talented, he earned a decent living, but his fervent belief in the Bible prompted him to preach in the streets for years, giving up what probably would have become a decent career as a blues singer. His voice, used to having to compete with the noises of the street, was a gruff and fervent instrument of strength. He used it mostly to interpret Negro spirituals, and shout out his lifelong message of holy hellfire and redemption to anyone who would stop and listen. He married his wife, Angeline, in 1927. She added 19th-century hymns to Johnson’s presentation, and the pair traveled around Texas, saving souls and singing the Lord’s praises.

The saga of Blind Willie Johnson takes a turn for the weird in the 1945. His house burned to the ground, and Johnson refused to leave the smoldering embers of what used to be his home in Beaumont, Texas. Blind Willie lived among the remaining ruins until he became ill and died on Sept. 18, 1945. The cause of his death has been reported in historical documents as anything from pneumonia to a combination of malaria and syphilis.
But Blind Willie Johnson’s music lives on. His songs have been covered by artists including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder and Peter Paul & Mary. GM