Blind Willie Johnson’s Gospel Blues
This thing is so powerful, it’s intimidating. It’s like being thrown across a room and pinned to a wall by some unseen, immovable force. You might not have heard of Blind Willie Johnson, but his music has been the backbone of countless folk, gospel and blues artists’ set lists since the ’30s.
Born in 1897, Johnson was blinded at the age of 7 when his stepmother threw lye in his face in retaliation for a beating she received at the hands of Johnson’s father for stepping out with another man. Johnson began busking on the streets of several dusty rural Texas town streets at a young age, spending most of his life in Beaumont, Texas as an itinerant street preacher and busker. He died in poverty, but his songs have endured, adopted by artists including Eric Clapton (“Motherless Children”), the Blind boys of Alabama (“John The Revelator”), Taj Mahal (“You Gonna Need Somebody On YourBond”), Josh White (“Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed”), and Jorma Kaukonen and Eric Bibb (“Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning”).
The cast assembled here to take on Blind Willie does him proud. Tom Waits’ version of “The Soul Of A Man” sounds like a whiskey-sozzled, back-slid stump preacher on his knees after a night of debauchery inquiring about the fate of his battered soul. An inspired mash up of old and new blends Waits’ cracked world weary vocals with a sampled version of Smith Casey’s 1930’s era gospel-tinged slide work on “East Texas Rag” culled from 1997’s A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings.
Lucinda Williams gets some sacred steel help from Doug Pettibone’s wiggly slide on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” Williams moaning exquisitely on a take that knits Appalachia and gospel threads into a country hymn that wraps around you like a comfortable old quilt.
Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks turn in a stripped down take on “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” that sounds like it was scooped down from the rafters of a 1930s African -American gospel service in a rural Southern church.
The always magnificent Blind Boys Of Alabama’s version of “Motherless Children Have A Hard Time” is stellar, leader Jimmy Carter’s voice still a glorious gospel instrument that belies his 86 years. Jason Isbell contributes a slide underpinning that sounds like he’s been a band member since day one.
Sinead O’Connor whoops and glides her way through a foot stomping take on “Trouble Soon Be Over,” building from a husky baritone to a full-throated gospel roar, picking up a country accent worthy of Dolly Parton along the way.
Maria McKee leads the congregation in an exuberant camp meeting revival style gospel romp on “Let Your Light Shine On Me.”
Saint or sinner, this big bundle of medicine contains a soul stirring potion that’s good for what ails ya. You don’t need no doctor. Just scarf it up and let the healing gospel goodness do the rest.