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American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: J (Part 2 – Johnson, Blind Willie)

From Blues to Gospel: Blind Willie Johnson

In today’s blog we celebrate Blind Willie Johnson, a musician active from the 1920s into the 1940s.

I am not sure if I’d ever heard of Willie Johnson before, but then I read that he influenced a number of people that I have heard of, and this piqued my interest. Numerous aspects of Johnson’s biography are uncertain, including the cause of his blindness, his marriages, and the cause of his death.

Johnson was born in 1902, in a small town south of Waco, Texas.  His mother passed away when he was still a baby, and his father remarried.  Willie began playing guitar when he was young, using  a pocketknife instead of his fingers.  After playing the blues for several years, Willie decided to abandon this in favor of gospel music. Eventually he became a Baptist preacher and also performed gospel music along with his preaching.

In 1927 he married a woman named Angeline, and later she performed with him, adding 19th-century hymns to his repertoire; sometimes she accompanied him and added background vocals.  Then, on December 3 of that year, Johnson was invited to Columbia Records studios; there he recorded six songs that became some of his biggest hits, including “If I had My Way” (about Samson and Delilah), “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time,” “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed,” “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole,” and perhaps his most famous song, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.”

He did not record again until December 5, 1928, and in this session he was accompanied by his wife: “I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuge,” and “Lord I Just Can’t Keep from Cryin’.”

1930 was the year of his final recording session, but he and his wife continued to perform in Texas during the 1930s and 1940s. Unfortunately, in 1947 their home was destroyed by fire, and about a week later Willie died of pneumonia–or possibly malarial fever–in the ashes of his former home.

To learn more about Blind Willie Johnson, check out the following:

From your regional library: People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music by Bob Darden, DB 93347.  Includes discography.

The NLS Music Section has Country Blues Guitar: Ten Radio Broadcasts by Stefan Grossman (DBM01495) available on digital cartridge. This recording will teach you to play some of the music mentioned in this article.

Whether you borrow these two books on cartridge, or download them from BARD, you will hear how Blind Willie’s performances influenced Eric Clapton, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, and Nina Simone, among others.

Only after I submitted this blog for review did I learn that Willie’s recording of “Dark Was the Night” was placed on the Golden Record that Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 carried into outer space in 1977 to represent Earth and human civilization to any spacefarers they might encounter.  Now Willie is singing to the stars.