Born in 1897 in Brenham, 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. I was born to a wholesome, Serbian immigrant, middle class family, almost a hundred years later on the other side of the world in 1992 in Australia. But I always saw something of myself in his music.
His singing voice, like most great bluesmen is one of his gifts – he sings with a voice which is immediately recognizable. He seems to have fully captured the intensity of his gospel preaching and religious belief in his voice. To me at first it sounded like rough and gravelly sandpaper – but the strength of his conviction immediately came through. His slide guitar also stands up powerfully in the canon of blues guitar players – he seems to have a style that is very forceful and direct but also loose and free. It left a big impression on me as a listener, and also as a guitar player.
His music has influenced generations of musicians but it has gone even further than that. 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 his 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 The New Savages’ first EP to Blind Willie Johnson 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.”
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 continue to be very influential – with myself being one of many examples. 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.
There is a story I’ve heard that two decades 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. But this could very well be a myth as there are no records that we have to indicate this – as with most early blues history the line between myth and truth tends to get blurred.
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 Blind Willie Johnson 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.