Wednesday, October 21, 2009

October 21: Blind Willie Johnson, "Dark Was The Night"

Artist: Blind Willie Johnson
Album: Dark Was The Night
Year: 1927 - 1930 (recorded), 1998 (released)
Label: Columbia/Legacy

Though many look to Robert Johnson as perhaps the most important blues musician of all time, the reality is, there were a large number of equally brilliant blues players that pre-date his history recordings. Artists like George Washington Phillips and Barbecue Bob helped to lay much of the groundwork for the blues style that is still played to this day. However, if one considers Johnson as the father of the Delta Blues style, then one must give the title of father of gospel/spiritual blues to a performer of equal merit, who pre-dates Johnson's recordings by nearly a decade: Blind Willie Johnson. With one of the most distinctive voices of any performer in history, and a powerful singing style that perfectly blends slow, sorrowful blues with the conviction and emotion of traditional gospel, it is nearly impossible to find any musician who came after him that was not in some way influenced by the music of Blind Willie Johnson. With all of his recordings taking place before 1930, a majority of his music was largely unavailable until the birth of the compact disc, when a few record labels began releasing compilations of his music. Now there are more than a dozen collections from which to choose, each of which is absolutely fantastic. However, standing far above all of the collections is the 1998 release, Dark Was The Night, which with its brilliant mastering and track listing, represents one of the most uniquely stunning albums one can experience.

From his simple "guy and guitar" approach to his songs, to the truth behind his painfully sad life, there are few artists in history that can boast as much "authenticity" as Blind Willie Johnson. While many blind artists were born with the condition, Willie Johnson lost his vision at the age of seven...when his step-mother, to get revenge on his father, threw a handful of lye into young Willie's face. Though Johnson would never see again, it was after this horrific incident that he taught himself how to play piano, as well as to play guitar in standard tunings, as well as his signature slide guitar style. However, this would hardly be the end of his heartbreaking story, as Johnson would remain poor his entire life, and aside from a handful of larger performances, he lived his life playing for spare change on the streets of Texas. These street performances were a mixture of music and gospel preaching, and this combination is reflected in every song found on Dark Was The Night. Though he eventually bought a home, in 1945, it burned to the ground, and with nowhere else to go, Blind Willie Johnson was forced to sleep in a wet bed in the remains of his former home. It is believed that these conditions are what led to him contracting pneumonia, and after being denied hospital treatment due to his race, Johnson died less than two weeks after the fire. Like every legendary bluesman, the spot of his grave is in question, yet one cannot argue that, when it comes to singing the blues, few have as much "street cred" as Blind Willie Johnson.

While he may not receive as much attention as other early blues masters, the truth of the matter is, his songs are just as powerful and have been re-worked and covered just as much over the years. From Led Zeppelin's modified version of "Nobody's Fault But Mine" to Mississippi Fred McDowell's cover of "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" to Peter, Paul, and Mary playing "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down" (retitled as "Samson And Delilah") , the influence of Blind Willie Johnson can be seen all across the musical spectrum. All of the homage paid to Blind Willie Johnson is undoubtedly due to the raw and honest sound of his voice, as well as the heartfelt, straightforward style with which he wrote. Every song found on Dark Was The Night easily transcends all boundaries of humanity, and is very much a presentation of music in it's most simple and pure form. Yet even with this simplicity, the power and style with which Blind Willie Johnson plays is absolutely unequaled. The mixture of country styles, gospel, and pure blues is like nothing else ever recorded, and Johnson's ability to almost have three distinct vocal styles is yet another reason why he remains in a class all his own. Whether gruff and gritty or a more relaxed, softer approach is used, there is truly something for everyone within the music of Blind Willie Johnson, and it is also why such diverse artists have drawn from his recordings.

Throughout the entire history of blues music, there is simply no other voice that even remotely compares to that of Blind Willie Johnson. With more gruff and deeper emotion than nearly any other performer in history, the voice of Blind Willie Johnson is truly one of a kind. Often almost growling the lyrics, it is clear that Johnson simply lets the spirit of the song flow directly through him, and the results are rarely anything short of extraordinary. Even when he is slightly more relaxed, such as on "Bye And Bye I'm Goin' To See The King," Johnson's voice is still overflowing with conviction and emotion. Nearly every song found on Dark Was The Night is some sort of spiritual, many of which are modified traditional songs. This is largely due to the fact that, since a young age, Johnson had always aspired to be a preacher. From the beautiful, slower, "Let Your Light Shine On Me" to the more fast paced, dirtier sound of "Mother's Children Have A Hard Time," Blind Willie Johnson is truly mesmerizing on every track. Also joining Johnson for a handful of the songs found on Dark Was The Night is a female vocalists whose identity is slightly in question. While Johnson's second wife, Angeline Johnson sang with him often in his later years, many records seem to indicate that the person featured on the actual recordings was in fact Johnson's first wife, Willie Harris. Regardless of which of his wives it is, her performances are absolutely phenomenal, and her soft, light voice provides a fantastic contrast to Johnson's rough growl. The contrast in styles is perhaps no more apparent or beautiful then one finds on the "John The Revelator," a song that would later become a regular part of Nick Cave's live sets, as well as the inspiration for the Bad Seed's song, "City Of Refuge."

The idea of "just because you sell lots of records, doesn't mean you're talented" is perhaps no more true then in the case of Blind Willie Johnson. A performer who could not even sell enough records to keep from busking for change on the streets, there are few artists who have had such long running and widespread influence as Johnson. Fusing together the power and conviction of gospel songs with the raw emotion of blues music, the music of Blind Willie Johnson is truly a sound that must be experienced firsthand to be completely understood. With his sorrowful, often gravely voice singing simply, yet passionately over his stellar slide-guitar playing, Dark Was The Night features more than half of the thirty stunning tracks he recorded in his career. From the tragic cause of his blindness, to his death being caused by him being forced to live in the rubble of his burned-down home, there are also few artists anywhere in history who are as "real" as Blind Willie Johnson. A man who knows heartbreak in every sense of the word, his experiences and pain come through clearly in every song, and it makes his music some of the most captivating and breathtaking ever recorded. Though one cannot go wrong with any of the compilations that are available, for the finest package of the recordings of the legendary Blind Willie Johnson, seek out 1998's Dark Was The Night for a truly essential and absolutely stunning musical experience.

NOTE: There is a 2003 release from Deep Sea Records which is also called Dark Was The Night, but it is, in fact, a tribute CD of other artists covering Blind Willie Johnson's songs.

Standout tracks: "If I Had My Way I'd Tear The Building Down," "John The Revelator," and "It's Nobody's Fault But Mine."

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