Blind Willie Johnson, Gospel Singer   Leave a comment

Blind Willie Johnson, Gospel Singer

“Blind” Willie Johnson (January 22, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was an American singer and guitarist, whose music straddled the border between blues and spirituals.

While the lyrics of all of his songs were religious, his music drew from both sacred and blues traditions. His music is distinguished by his powerful bass thumb-picking and gravelly false-bass voice, with occasional use of a tenor voice.

LifeBlind Willie Johnson, according to his death certificate, was born in 1897 near Brenham, Texas, United States (before the discovery of his death certificate, Temple, Texas had been suggested as his birthplace).[1] 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.[2]

Johnson was not born blind, and, although it is not known how he lost his sight, Angeline Johnson told Samuel Charters that 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.[2]

It is believed that Johnson married at least twice. He was married to Willie B. Harris. Her recollection of their initial meeting was recounted in the liner notes for Yazoo Records’s “Praise God I’m Satisfied” album. He was later alleged to have been married to a woman named Angeline. Johnson was also said to be married to a sister of blues artist, L.C. Robinson.[citation needed] No marriage certificates have yet been discovered.[citation needed] As Angeline Johnson often sang and performed with him,[citation needed] 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.[1] However, later research showed that it was Willie B. Harris.[1]

Johnson remained poor until the end of his life, preaching and singing in the streets of several Texas cities including Beaumont, Texas. A city directory shows that in 1945, a Rev. W.J. Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, Beaumont, Texas.[1] This is the same address listed on Johnson’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 in the August/September Texas heat. He lived like this until he contracted malarial fever and died on September 18, 1945. (The death certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.)[1] In a later interview, his wife, Angeline said she tried to take him to a hospital but they refused to admit him because he was blind, while other sources report that his refusal was due to being black. And although there is some question as to where his exact grave location is, Blanchette Cemetery (which is the cemetery listed on the death certificate but location previously unknown) was officially located by two researchers in 2009. In 2010, those same researchers erected a monument to Johnson in the cemetery, but his exact gravesite remains unknown.[3]

Musical career “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”

The traditional blues song recorded in 1928 by Blind Willie Johnson and his first wife


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His father would often leave him on street corners to sing for money. Tradition has it that he was arrested for nearly starting a riot at a New Orleans courthouse with a powerful rendition of “If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down”, a song about Samson and Delilah. According to Samuel Charters, however, he was simply arrested while singing for tips in front of a Custom House, by a police officer who misconstrued the title lyric and mistook it for incitement.[2] Timothy Beal argued that the officer did not, in fact, misconstrue the meaning of the song, but that “the ancient story suddenly sounded dangerously contemporary” to him.[4]

Johnson made 30 commercial recording studio record sides in five separate sessions for Columbia Records from 1927–1930. On some of these recordings Johnson uses a fast rhythmic picking style, while on others he plays slide guitar. According to a reputed one-time acquaintance, Blind Willie McTell (1898–1959), Johnson played with a brass ring, although other sources cite him using a knife. However, in enlargement, the only known photograph of Johnson seems to show that there is an actual bottleneck on the little finger of his left hand.[5] While his other fingers are apparently fretting the strings, his little finger is extended straight—which also suggests there is a slide on it as well.

Some of Johnson’s most famous recordings include “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” (later covered as “In My Time of Dying” on later recordings), “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine”, his rendition of the gospel song “Let Your Light Shine On Me”, as well as “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, where he sang in wordless hum and moans about the crucifixion of Jesus. This song was a “moaning” piece related to the Bentonia school of blues practiced by such “eerie voiced” artists as Skip James and Robert Johnson. On 14 of his recordings he is accompanied by Willie B Harris, or an as-yet-unidentified female singer. This group of recordings included “Church I’m Fully Saved Today”, “John the Revelator”, “You’ll Need Somebody on Your Bond”, “Soul of a Man”, and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”.

LegacyJohnson’s records have become influential, and his songs have been covered by several popular artists, including Led Zeppelin. Other artists who have covered Johnson include Bob Dylan, The 77s, Beck, The Blasters, Phil Keaggy and The White Stripes (who have covered “John the Revelator”, as well as covering “Motherless Children Have A Hard Time” and “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Cryin'” live). Billy Childish has covered “John the Revelator” with his band The Buff Medways, and it was a staple of their live performances. “John the Revelator” was also recorded by delta blues musician Son House, and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” was recorded by another delta blues musician, Fred McDowell. Eric Clapton did “Motherless Children”, Bob Dylan turned Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” into “In My Time of Dying” on his 1962 debut album and “If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down” has been appropriated by the Grateful Dead and the Staple Singers.

“If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down” was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary; retitled as “Samson and Delilah”. The song was frequently performed by the Grateful Dead and appears on their studio album Terrapin Station; Gary Davis also recorded a version; and Bruce Springsteen has performed a version of the song live with the Seeger Sessions Band. In the opening scene of the second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Shirley Manson sang a version of this song. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” has also been covered by Mason Jennings, Nina Simone, and was modified by Led Zeppelin. Nick Cave has performed “John the Revelator” live, and based his song “City of Refuge,” from his band the Bad Seeds’ 1988 album, Tender Prey, on Johnson’s song of the same title. Many of Johnson’s songs were recorded in the late 1980s by gospel blues musicians Glenn Kaiser and Darrell Mansfield, on their album Trimmed & Burnin’.

In 1991, Bruce Cockburn covered “Soul of a Man” on his album Nothing But A Burning Light, the title of which is a line from the same song. In 1994 Ben Harper added a short cover excerpt of “By and By I’m Going To See The King” as a hidden track on his debut album Welcome to the Cruel World. “Trouble Soon be Over” was covered by Colin Linden on the album Easin’ Back to Tennessee. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was covered by Ry Cooder on his debut album and in 2003 Deep Sea Records issued a Johnson tribute album called Dark Was the Night, featuring artists such as Martin Simpson, Gary Lucas, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Jody Stecher. Dark was the Night was also included on the Voyager Golden Record, copies of which were mounted on both of the the Voyager spacecraft which have since left the solar system [6]. This event was mentioned, along with a clip of the song, on The West Wing episode The Warfare of Genghis Khan.

Segments of several performances by Blind Willie Johnson are used as interludes on the 2010 album We Walk This Road by Robert Randolph and the Family Band.


Posted February 25, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Gospel Singers

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