Blind Willie Johnson
1902-1949 or 1950
Blind Willie Johnson combined the passion of gospel music with the intensity of the blues unlike any other artist. His deep, gravelly vocals soared mightily over his haunted, burning slide guitar, creating a hard-hitting spiritual experience which remains unparalleled. He recorded only 30 sides, mostly adapted from hymns, including Jesus Make up my Dying Bed, Let you Light Shine on Me, Nobody’s Fault but Mine, as well as his masterpiece Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground. It’s impossible to describe this raw, haunted, tortured, ethereal instrumental accompanied by fevered moans, it remains one of the most moving pieces of music ever recorded.
“Blind Willie Johnson was born in 1897 near Brenham, Texas (before the discovery of his death certificate, Temple, Texas had been suggested as his birthplace). When he was five, he told his father he wanted to be a preacher, and then made himself a cigar box guitar. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried soon after her death.
It is thought that Johnson was married twice, first to a woman with the same first name, Willie B Harris, and later to a young singer named Angeline, who was the sister of blues guitarist L.C. Robinson. No marriage certificates have yet been discovered. As Angeline Johnson often sang and performed with him, the first person to attempt to research his biography, Samuel Charters, made the mistake of assuming it was Angeline who had sung on several of Johnson’s records. However, later research showed that it was Johnson’s first wife.
Johnson was not born blind, and, although it is not known how he lost his sight, Angeline Johnson provided the following account to Samuel Charters. She said when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man. The stepmother then picked up a handful of lye and threw it, not at Willie’s father, but into the face of young Willie.
Johnson remained poor until the end of his life, preaching and singing in the streets of Beaumont, Texas to anyone who would listen. A city directory shows that in 1944, a Rev W J Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, Beaumont, Texas. This is the same address listed on Blind Willie’s death certificate. In 1945, his home burned to the ground. With nowhere else to go, Johnson lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a wet bed. He lived like this until he contracted pneumonia two weeks later, and died. (The death certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis as a contributing factor.) In a later interview his wife said she tried to take him to a hospital but they refused to admit him because he was black, while other sources report that, according to Johnson’s wife, his refusal was due to his blindness. Although there is some dispute as to where his grave is, members of the Beaumont community have committed to finding the site and preserving it.” (1)
No actually footage exists of a BWJ performance. This clip comes from the Wim Wenders’ film “The Soul of a Man” created for the PBS TV series Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues – A Musical Journey produced by Martin Scorcese. The music is performed by Blind Willie Johnson, portrayed by Chris Thomas King ( a formidable blues musician in his own right, he also played Tommy Johnson in the film O’ Brother Where Art Thou?
Honestly, this is all you need. Don’t waste your time with a best of, this contains every track he recorded, and you need to hear them all.
For Further Study: