Who is Blind Willie Johnson?
Born in 1897 in Texas, Willie Johnson was not always blind. At the age of seven his stepmother threw lye in his face and blinded him. His father was having an argument with her over her infidelity and she took it out on Willie. He was born to a very different world to the one me and you have grown up in.
He was an itinerant, self appointed pastor, and gospel preacher. When I first came across his music I thought it sounded a lot more like the devil’s music than anything holy. His singing style is a true anomaly – he sings with a voice which is unrecognizable in the world of popular music. He is the only singer I have personally ever heard of singing in the style known as “false-bass”, the opposite of the “falsetto” commonly used in music. His slide guitar also lays down, in my mind, the foundations of a completely original style of slide playing.
He is to my ears, maybe the only true predecessor of Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose recording career started in earnest a generation later. My girlfriend will attest to the case that I probably listen to and talk about these two guys a little too much. I believe them both to be the architects of a very spiritual and special kind of blues, where the very power of god seems to instill through their music. The fact that this music can speak so directly to the heart of an atheist is a testament to the artistic power of religious devotion.
But what does the music of a blind street preacher have to do with a bunch of space probes hurling through space? The Voyager space program was started by NASA in 1977 with the aim of studying the outer universe and the probes have gone further than anyone, or anything, in history. The voyager space probes contain vinyl records attempting to capture the diversity of sounds in the world.
“Dark Was the night, Cold was the ground” is sandwiched between an Indian raga, and Beethoven. Carl Sagan, in choosing the song for the project, spoke of the recording as “most haunting” and “expressive of a kind of cosmic loneliness”. I read that in 40,000 years the record will near a faraway constellation named “Camelopardalis”. Perhaps one day a Camelopardalian will listen to the album and his music will find another home.
But that alien wasn’t me, I was first made aware of BWJ from Led Zeppelin’s II album, when I was maybe 17 years old. I had read that their album was dedicated to his memory. I wanted to continue that tradition, so I dedicated my first recorded EP to BWJ as well.
The New Savages’ second single “Down The River Blues” takes inspiration from the song “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”. The second verse of that song also quotes near verbatim my favourite Son House verse:
“Yeah it ain’t no heaven now,
and it ain’t no burning hell.
Said I where I’m going when
I die can’t nobody tell.”
For a fellow blues traveler such as myself, I love hearing the similar various phrases sang in different songs. They give a peek into the musical heritage that those artists worked on their craft in.
Blind Willie Johnson made his first recordings 90 years ago (December 3rd, 1927). His recordings in my mind are still more relevant to blues music than any modern recordings. Any fan of the blues has an obligation to listen to his 12 sides of slide recordings. His recording career only lasted for three years until 1930 – when the great depression started to destroy many a career of the early bluesmen. He did not live to see the renewed interest in his music in the late 50’s and early 60’s, in the period known as the folk-blues revival. This interest eventually culminated in world-famous artists like Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin performing his music.
Two decades or so before that, in 1945, his home was burned down in a fire. With nowhere to go he continued to live in the ruins of his house, and eventually contracted malaria. No hospital would admit him as he was both black and blind, and he would die later that year. Blind Willie Johnson remains a figure shrouded in mystery – we know so little of his personal life, and have only one known photograph.
But I think the music, and the myth will last forever – and in many worlds to come.
If there are any fellow guitarists out there looking to learn more about how to play like BWJ check out Tom Feldmann’s DVD available on guitarvideos.com
Tom Feldmann’s guitar lessons in my opinion are an extremely good introduction to BWJ’s unique style of playing. But to get closer to understanding the idiosyncratic style you will need to listen to the records multiple times and think about the incredible amount of subtleties present.