The Complete Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie Johnson
On the very first day Blind Willie Johnson recorded professionally, in a makeshift Dallas studio in December 1927, the Texas singer and guitarist rattled off a mournful song called "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine." Decades later, it was modified by Led Zeppelin, and became one of the group's signature hits. That day Johnson also recorded a song called "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time," which has been recorded by Eric Clapton and others. And Johnson sang "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed," which Bob Dylan turned into "In My Time of Dying." The gospel-bluesman also did "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down," which has been covered by the Grateful Dead, among others.
But that's not all: Johnson's big day included a song that stands as his defining moment—"Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," an account of the crucifixion of Christ. It's a hymn, and when sung in church, it involves the preacher and congregation in somber call-and-response exchanges. He wrings out the main theme in measured tones sliding across the strings using a pocket knife instead of bottlenecks or more conventional implements. He then sings or hums, in croaky voice, the wordless vocal "responses," which are often little more than the typical parishioner variations on "uh-huhhmmm." It's a dark, disconsolate, deeply moving masterpiece. Ry Cooder, who used the tune as a model for his film soundtrack Paris, Texas, once called it "the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music."
Those same superlatives might apply to many of Johnson's recordings, which were made between 1927 and 1930 and are collected on this startling two-disc set. Johnson didn't consider himself a bluesman, and concentrated on material with a spiritual message. Yet because he had the ability to make the guitar talk so vividly, his ideas spread quickly through the blues world, becoming common performance practice. Johnson never got the credit for that—he's another of the major figures who's been nearly lost in the back pages of American musical history. Yet because of that first day in the studio, everyone who cares about rock and roll and blues and gospel is at least distantly acquainted with the Blind Willie Johnson mojo. Go back to the source to discover just how powerful that mojo can be.
Genre: Blues, Gospel
Released: 1993, Columbia
Key Tracks: "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine," "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning"
Next Stop: Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Gospel of the Blues
After That: Gary Davis: Harlem Street Singer
Book Pages: 400–401