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Willie Johnson

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Biography

“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.

Life

Blind 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). 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.

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.

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.

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