Thursday, December 1, 2011

December 1: Blind Willie Johnson, "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground"

Artist: Blind Willie Johnson
Song: "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground"
Album: Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground (78 rpm record)
Year: 1927


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As one goes further and further back in music history, there are less and less examples of recorded music, and yet one can argue that those who were able to record were far more influential than from any other period that followed.  In fact, one can easily make the case that the handful of artists who found their way onto records during the 1920's and 1930's are completely responsible for the wide range of music that can be found within the current music scene.  Though a majority of artists from that era are some of the best known names of all time, there are still a few performers that are slightly less famous, and yet their contributions are almost always just as, if not more important.  Among these giants of early recorded music is the man who remains without question one of the greatest slide guitar players in all of history, and there are few musicians that can old their own in any area of music against the talents and sound of the legendary Blind Willie Johnson.  Though nearly all of his songs brought with them heavy overtones of religion, there is a power and beauty to every note of each of his songs, and he remains one of the most distinctive of all of the early blues players.  He is also responsible for some of the most oft-covered songs in history, and yet there may be no other recording in all of music history that can rival the pain and beauty one can experience on Blind Willie Johnson's iconic 1927 song, "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground."

The moment that "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" begins, an intimate mood far beyond that of nearly any other recording is instantly set into place.  This comes from the rather open, almost airy sound that is likely due to recording technology at the time, and yet it is also because one can easily hear Johnson's hands moving on his guitar, quickly drawing the listener into the studio.  With nothing more than his guitar, Johnson holds and builds on this mood, and there has rarely been a similar performance that even comes close to the feelings one gets from the guitar on "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground."  It is the way that Johnson slides from note to note, clearly letting the spirit of the song dictate his playing, that makes this such an exceptional moment in recorded history, and the track may be the finest definition of this musical approach.  In many ways, the guitar on "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" is in itself a vocal part, and the expressive nature of the performance is second to none.  This reality serves as a testament not only to the talents of Johnson, but to the true power that lives within the instrument, and countless musicians have used this performances as an example and an inspiration.  Yet there is never a moment on this recording that is anything less than powerfully humble, and in many ways, this description perfectly fits the overall style and intent of Johnson's music.

However, what sets "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" aside from almost every other recording of the early blues is the fact that the song is almost completely an instrumental.  While Blind Willie Johnson's voice is clearly on the track, it is rarely anything beyond a hum or a few mumbles.  Yet this works perfectly, as much like the guitar, Johnson is letting the overall spirit of the music dictate his sound.  In terms of both the notes that he is humming, as well as the volume behind them, Johnson works in perfect harmony with the sounds of the guitar, and there is no question that this is one of the most stunningly simple recordings of all time.  On many levels, one can also see this as the definition of the blues, as his vocal sounds are all about mood and feeling, and one can easily feel the pain and sorrow he expresses in this wordless performance.  It is the somber nature that one can extract from his sound that continues to captivate listeners, and many have rightfully stated that Johnson's vocal sound all across "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" are the very definition of loneliness.  There has never been another expression of human emotion that even comes close to what one can hear on this recording, and it is due to the completely raw and honest way that Johnson approaches the track which enables him to achieve such unrivaled musical greatness.

While there were certainly a number of massively influential blues recordings made during the era during which "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" was first released, it continues to stand out from the rest after the better part of a century, and its influence can be clearly seen across almost every style of music that has emerged since.  Countless musicians, ranging from Jack White to Peter, Paul, and Mary to Led Zeppelin have all borrowed in part or full from this recording, and it remains one of the most important moments in the development of both blues and rock music.  One can also find "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" utilized in a wide range of films over the decades, as the mood and emotions conveyed throughout the track cannot be denied, and they hit just a hard today as they did when the song was first released.  Furthermore, the song has been recognized in a number of historical ways, including being selected as one of twenty-seven recordings that were launched into space in 1977.  It is the way that the voice of Johnson blends so seamlessly with his guitar that makes "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" such a uniquely amazing recording, and while countless artists have tried to capture and express such deep and dark human emotions, there is simply no comparison to Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 masterpiece.

2 comments:

Vintage Spins said...

Your post on one of my favourite pre-war recordings is so well-written and researched.

I especially appreciate your wide-ranging taste in music and stop by your blog every day. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

A unique early recording. Love your mix of music, this and Foghat, my Christmas came early!
Many thanks.