Blind Willie Johnson

TrackFirst recording
It’'s Nobody’s Fault But MineColumbia 14303 (1927)
Mother’'s Children Have A Hard TimeColumbia 14343 (1927)
Dark Was The Night - Cold Was The GroundColumbia 14303 (1927)
If I Had My Way I’'d Tear The Building DownColumbia 14343 (1927)
Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And BurningColumbia 14425 (1928)
God Moves On The WaterColumbia 14520 (1929)
The Soul Of A ManColumbia 14582 (1930)
Church, I’'m Fully Saved TodayColumbia 14582 (1930)
John The RevelatorColumbia 14530 (1930)
You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your BondColumbia 14530 (1930)

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributor: Cal Taylor

Of Nobody’s Fault But Mine Eric Clapton is reported to have said, “probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear.” Of Dark Was The Night – Cold Was The Ground, Ry Cooder suggested that it was “the most soulful transcendent piece in all American music.” Praise from on high, indeed.

Blind Willie Johnson’s influence, since he first recorded in 1927, simply cannot be overstated.

From December 1927, in less than two and a half years, he made a total of thirty recordings, all of a tremendously high standard. Before him, nobody had been recorded who sang the way he did or played the guitar the way he did. It is a surprising but historical fact that during his recording career he consistently outsold Bessie Smith who was on the same label, Columbia. Although all of his recordings were religious, in the years immediately after his first records were released there were scores and scores of secular Blues singers who were influenced by Blind Willie Johnson. In every succeeding decade, too, artists have continued to perform songs he first recorded and some have tried to emulate his unsurpassed guitar playing.

To listen to his recordings the best buy, undoubtedly, is The Complete Blind Willie Johnson 2CD Box Set on Columbia Legacy (1993) which contains all 30 tracks. Others available are The Soul Of A Man on Snapper Music, 20 tracks (2004) and Nobody’s Fault But Mine: Original Recordings 1927-30 on Rev-Ola, 23 tracks (2007).

Virtually all of BWJ’s recordings could have made my top 10, they are so good – no poor ones, they only range from excellent to unbelievable! I have somehow narrowed it down to the stipulated ten choices. In square brackets after my individual selections I have added subsequent recordings with year of the same song by other artists.

From his first recording session, 3 December 1927, Dallas:

It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine, the guitar playing on which Eric Clapton commented (see above). [The Staples Singers (1965), Led Zeppelin (1976), Tom Jones (2010)]

Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time which was wrongly titled – it should have been Motherless Children. [Dave Van Ronk (1963), Steve Miller Band (1969), Eric Clapton (1974)]

Dark Was The Night – Cold Was The Ground (video clip above) almost defies description. No words, just humming and moaning over Willie’s superlative guitar playing. It is so intensely, hauntingly moving. There’s nothing else like it! It had the honour to be one of only twenty-seven samples of music launched into space on the Voyager probe in 1977, for aliens to appreciate sounds from earth – they won’t be disappointed! This recording was also used on the film scores of The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964) and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). In 2010 further honour was bestowed upon it when it was selected by the US Library Of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry for its ‘cultural, historic and aesthetic significance’. [Leon Bibb – Eric’s dad (1960), Fairport Convention as The Lord Is In This Place – How Dreadful Is This Place (1968), Ry Cooder (1970)]

If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down is the tale of Samson and Delilah. A nice little story has it that Willie was singing this song in 1929 outside a government building in New Orleans when a policeman, taking the words of the song literally, arrested him for incitement to cause a riot! [Reverend Gary Davis as Samson & Delilah (1960), Peter Paul & Mary as If I Had My Way (1962), Grateful Dead as Samson & Delilah (1977)]

From his second recording session, 5 December 1928, Dallas:

Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning – his wife, Willie B. Harris, accompanied him on this ‘call and response’ song over BWJ’s tremendous guitar playing. [Reverend Gary Davis (1960), Hot Tuna (1970), Catfish Keith (1997)]

From the second day of his third recording session, 11 December 1929, New Orleans:

God Moves On The Water. This song is about the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, which was named after a Greek god and hailed as ‘unsinkable’. Maybe reflecting a prominent sentiment at the time, perhaps the song was preaching ‘there is only one God and only He says what is unsinkable or not’. [Mance Lipscomb (1964), Dave Moore (1990), Boxcar Preachers (2006)]

From his last recording session, 20 April 1930, Atlanta:

Despite his continual previous high standards, BWJ recorded some of his very best material at this session. He is accompanied vocally on all further selections by Willie B. Harris, who complements him exquisitely.

The Soul Of A Man, also the title of a Blues film directed by Wim Wenders (2003), which features some Blind Willie Johnson recordings and a brief story of his life. [Irma Thomas (2006), Eric Burdon (2006), Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (2009)]

Church, I’m Fully Saved Today has a rousing, ‘happy clappy’ feel that gets to you but has much to commend it. There is something contagious about it that has you singing it over and over to yourself. (My wife is convinced that they’re singing about a church jam puddin’. You’d have to listen to it yourself to see if my wife has a case!)

John The Revelator, my next selection, refers to The Book of Revelation written by the Apostle John. This is a great, driving song. [Son House (1965), White Stripes as Cannon (1999), Curtis Stigers (2008)]

You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond is my favourite vocal by Willie. He had already recorded the song four months earlier with a different (unknown) female singer but, what turned out to be his last ever recording, was a little slower, had better harmonies and finished with a fantastic slide solo – a fitting end. [Buffy Saint-Marie (1964), Donovan (1965), Taj Mahal (1969)]

Other songs that just missed my top ten: his first recording I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole (1927); Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed (1927) [recorded by Bob Dylan as In My Time Of Dyin’ (1962)]; I’m Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge (1928); Jesus Is Coming Soon (1928) – which is about the 1918 Spanish ‘Flu epidemic which killed millions of people; When The War Was On (1929); Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right (1930).

It is staggering just how much of Blind Willie Johnson’s material has been covered and by so many diverse artists, endorsing his influence.

We know relatively little about him. Some fundamental facts are disputed, including his birth place and date, marriage and children details, plus whether or not he was a church preacher. His recordings are well documented but there are a few personal facts that are certain; he was blinded when he was about seven years old, he was a street singer from a very early age right up to his death, he was extremely religious, he lived in Texas and he died there, in his forties, on 18 September 1945 at his home in Beaumont where he lived with Angeline Johnson. More details of Blind Willie’s life can be referenced elsewhere.

If you were a black singer in America in the first half of the 20th century you were either a religious singer or you sang secular songs. There were a few exceptions who did both (and then not usually on the same day) but the vast majority were firmly in one camp only to the exclusion of the other. Blind Willie was absolutely and totally a religious singer – he never recorded a secular song. All were either gospel, adapted hymns, religious stories with moralistic judgments or other forms of sacred songs. In, say, 1930, definitely not Blues, but even though the music was unchanged perhaps the ‘labels’ were changing over time. In 1959, in his book The Country Blues, Samuel Charters included a chapter on Blind Willie Johnson, who would have been mortified to be classed as a Blues (secular) singer. Now, 80-odd years on, I believe, BWJ’s recordings, whatever other categories they might fall into, are some of the best Blues ever recorded. This type of music, whether religious or secular, is two different sides of the same coin. Willie’s guitar playing is Country Blues, his vocals sound like Blues, they are religious songs but, in my opinion, are pure Blues.

Although many of his songs were adapted hymns or traditional, and therefore not original as such, they were mostly the first recordings of those songs that have been subsequently copied by a whole host of various artists over the last eight decades. If you like superb guitar work you will love him. His vocals might be a bit of an ‘acquired taste’ so if you‘re hearing him for the first time, please persist – it will be worth the effort! His importance in musical history should not be underestimated.

Blind Willie Johnson would have been amazed at the legacy he left but, if he could somehow have been aware, I’m sure that he would have thought it was God’s will.

Blind Willie Johnson discography

Blind Willie Johnson biography (iTunes)

It’s great that Cal is sharing his blues knowledge on toppermost (see also his posts on Robert Johnson and Charley Patton) but please don’t let him do all the hard work. If you have a particular favourite blues singer we’d love to hear from you.

TopperPost #121

2 Comments

  1. Rick J Leach
    Nov 9, 2013

    Very good post – the blues really are timeless and still speak to us all these years down the line.

  2. Peter Viney
    Nov 9, 2013

    I particularly like the way Cal has done this article. With artists like Blind Willie Johnson, I don’t have the knowledge, nor an album, but I do know the songs by other artists (without being able to put a writer name to them). Cal has tied this all together so that we can, as blues fans inevitably do, start with the cover then find our way back to the original.
    On which, Ollabelle’s debut album (2004) has both Soul of A Man and John The Revelator, and was produced by T-Bone Burnett. Ollabelle includes Amy Helm (mentioned on the Linda Thompson page), and John The Revelator was a feature of Levon Helm Band “Midnight Ramble” shows where Ollabelle performed. Ollabelle do a lot of stuff on the blues / gospel interface. Taj Mahal did it on “Blue Light Boogie” and in “Blues Brothers 2000” with Sam (Sam & Dave) Moore. I thought about it for the Taj Mahal page.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓