Dark Was the Night: The Life and Times of Blind Willie Johnson
History has shown us time and again that it takes a very potent recipe of events to spawn a movement. More often than not, a mixture of economic, political, and social factors influence the birth of new ideas and practices. In this particular case I am employing the word movement only as it pertains to art…more specifically, as it pertains to music; and to be more specific still, as it pertains to the Blues.
The style of music known as the Blues was just such a movement. And although the Blues appears to be a post-Emancipation phenomenon, the sounds of the Blues can be traced back to the old-timey spirituals, plantation work songs, field hollers, and chants of the wealthy landowners’ African American slaves in the Deep South of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Even after slavery was abolished in 1865, racism and inequality ran rampant throughout the States. Such things undoubtedly had an affect on the Blues. But even more than that, the Blues spoke of life as African Americans, and was written and played by a variety of individuals, from boxcar ramblers to smartly dressed street corner players, from the religious to the sinners, from the card sharks and pimps to the hard working factory laborers and field hands, from cash-holding daddy-o’s to the down-and-out wanderers, from the lovers to the heartbroken, and from the saved to the damned.
When we hear of the Blues, we often hear of the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, the reserved drifter Skip James, Piedmont bluesman Willie McTell, country bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, and slide guitar king Elmore James. We also hear of Bukka White, Muddy Waters, and Son House. But we seldom hear of one of the most accomplished and masterful of all the names involved in the Blues Movement, and that is Blind Willie Johnson.
An exquisite slide guitarist, Blind Willie Johnson praised the lord and sang like the devil. Many referred to him as a street corner evangelist on account of his lyrical content, which mostly dealt with religious topics. His deep, gravelly vocals were unique to his style of the Blues. But nothing can quite prepare a listener, even the most seasoned Blues aficionado, for his song “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” in which Johnson didn’t so much as sing as he hummed and moaned along with the note progression in passionate, wordless throes of lyrical skill. According to some, “Dark Was The Night…” was meant to be about the crucifixion of Christ. Guitarist Ry Cooder once referred to “Dark Was The Night…” as the most transcendent piece in all American music. From Johnson’s second release on Columbia’s “race artists” label the song “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” shows the depth and breadth of his guitar skills. Singer/songwriter Eric Clapton called Johnson’s playing on “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear.
Always singing and playing with the fiery reverence, spiritual fervor, and soulfulness of a man about to find himself at the gates of heaven to be judged by his maker, Blind Willie Johnson established himself in Texas not just as a bluesman but as a street corner preacher. In fact, at the age of five or so, young Willie expressed his intentions of becoming a preacher to his father. Also at the age of five, Johnson made his first guitar, which he fashioned out of a cigar box, a practice not entirely uncommon among poor folk in those days. After that, Johnson took to playing the piano. Truth be told, Johnson taught himself both piano and guitar; the guitar in standard tuning, and then in open D for slide.
Though it is not known for certain, Blind Willie Johnson, born in 1897, may have entered the world in Marlin, Texas…a railroad town in the heart of cotton country. His death certificate, however, states Independence, Texas. What we do know is that his mother died when he was still very young, and his father remarried soon after. Johnson was not born blind, however, and though the cause of his blindness was never officially documented, there is a widely accepted tale having to do with it. His father’s second wife was caught having an affair with another man, and she received a beating when her husband discovered it was going on. To avenge the beating, she threw lye in her young stepson’s eyes, blinding him permanently. That was when he was seven. And the remainder of his life would be spent in absolute darkness.
As one of the most notable Depression Era bluesmen and gospel singers, Blind Willie Johnson went from performing on street corners in Hearne, Texas to becoming one of the first gospel guitarists to record in December of 1927. After his recording sessions for Columbia in Dallas, Johnson returned to his street corner sermons and long hours of busking. Wired to the neck of his guitar was a cup in which passersby could throw change or more substantial tips. He often played at church functions and revival meetings, to which he traveled with his wife, Willie B. Harris, whom he married in 1926, and with whom he occasionally sang. In April of 1930 he recorded his last sessions with Columbia. Not long after that he remarried, settling down in Beaumont, Texas, where he would play and sing along Forsythe Street. According writer Jas Obrecht, who provided the liner notes on one of Columbia’s more recent re-issues of Johnson’s songs, shopkeepers along Forsythe Street remembered Johnson as a gentle, dignified man who dressed neatly and wore close-cropped hair. With his second wife Angeline, Johnson often sang at Mount Olive Baptist Church and at revivals in Houston. On some of Johnson’s recordings he is accompanied by a woman vocalist’s harmonies, though it is uncertain whether that woman was his first wife, his second wife, or some other woman heretofore unmentioned in the biography of his life. We do know, however, that his first wife, Willie B. Harris, did in fact contribute the harmonies on some of Johnson’s early recordings.
It is also said that Johnson was arrested in New Orleans outside of a courthouse for nearly starting a riot with a particularly powerful version of his song “If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down.” That rumor was later dispelled after the truth was brought to light that he was arrested while singing for tips outside of a Custom House, when a passing officer misconstrued the title lyric and mistook it for incitement. “If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down” is not a protest song as some have thought over the years, but a biblical song about Samson and Delilah.
Whether Blind Willie Johnson used a pocketknife or a bottleneck to play his slide arrangements nobody really knows, though one of Johnson’s acquaintances, Blind Willie McTell, once stated that Johnson played his slide guitar with a brass ring. Since the only known photograph of Blind Willie Johnson doesn’t show any visible fretting tool, that particular subject will be left to his dedicated fans’ imaginations. Some consider Johnson’s slide playing as unparallel, while others simply regard it as exceptional. I am one of the former. And the way that he followed the notes with his gruff vibrato and gravelly bass vocals is something Blues listeners the world over have never heard in such a way since.
Johnson’s religious convictions, which were intensely expressed in his songs, were made evident in such songs as “Church, I’m Fully Saved Today,” “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed,” “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole,” and “Praise God I’m Satisfied.” Throughout his life Johnson retained that same level of spirituality. As both bluesman and preacher, he was able to combine the two into the music that made him a legend. Despite his posthumous legendary status, Johnson remained poor for his entire life; and it was that poverty that eventually contributed to his death in 1945. That same year, his house caught fire and burned to the ground. With no money and nowhere else to go, Johnson and his wife slept in the burned ruins of their home on a bed of damp newspapers, living that way until, two weeks later, he contracted pneumonia. After being denied admittance to the local hospital, he died. Later, in an interview with Johnson’s wife, it was said that he was denied admittance to the hospital because he was blind, though earlier sources had stated that it was because he was black.
On Blind Willie Johnson’s death certificate the address listed is 1440 Forrest Street, Beaumont, Texas, which at that time was The House of Prayer, and the name listed is Rev W J Johnson. For years Johnson’s grave site was sought out by researchers and Blues enthusiasts alike, but it was only recently, in August of 2009, that Blues researcher and Texan Charles Ortman uncovered Johnson’s long lost grave in Beaumont’s Blanchette Cemetery. As it turned out, Johnson had been buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in the “coloured” section of Blanchette Cemetery, which is actually still separated from the “white” section by a chain link fence. Ortman has already submitted an application with the Texas State Historical Commission to approve a monument at Johnson’s site. And an anonymous benefactor has offered up $1,500.00 to erect a proper marker.
Without the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, the styles of music we know today, like rock n’ roll and punk, would not be what they are. Nor would modern folk and country be what they are. So, it probably goes without saying, we owe figures of music’s history, especially the Blues, a huge dept. And that dept is carried forth by those who continue to write and play important, meaningful and worthwhile songs.