22 January 1897
Brenham, Washington County, Texas, United States
18 September 1945 (aged 48)
Blind Willie Johnson (January 22, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was a gospel blues singer, guitarist and songwriter.
While the lyrics of his songs were usually religious, his music drew from both sacred and blues traditions. It is characterized by his slide guitar accompaniment and tenor voice, and his frequent use of a lower-register 'growl' or false bass voice.
According to his death certificate, Johnson was born in 1897 near Brenham, Texas. (Earlier, 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 a cigar box guitar for himself. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried soon after her death.
Johnson was not born blind. Although it is not certain how he lost his sight, his alleged widow Angeline Johnson told Samuel Charters that when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man; and that she in spite blinded young Willie by throwing lye in his face.
Johnson made 30 commercial recording studio record sides (29 songs) 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; but the bluesman Tom Shaw, interviewed by Guido van Rijn in 1972, says that he used 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. 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.
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 album Praise God I'm Satisfied. 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. No marriage certificates have yet been discovered. As Angeline Johnson often sang and performed with him, 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. However, later research showed that it was Willie B. Harris.
Johnson remained poor until the end of his life, preaching and singing in the streets of several Texas cities including Beaumont. 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. 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.) In an interview, Angeline said that she tried to take him to a hospital, which refused to admit him because he was blind. Other sources report that the refusal was due to his being black.
According to his death certificate, he was buried in Blanchette Cemetery, Beaumont. The location of that cemetery had been forgotten until it was rediscovered in 2009. His exact gravesite remains unknown; but in 2010, the researchers who had identified the cemetery erected a monument there in his honor.
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 the Customs House by a police officer who misconstrued the title lyric and mistook it for incitement. 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.
Several of Blind Willie Johnson's songs have been interpreted by other musicians, including "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed", "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine", "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", "John the Revelator", "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond", "Motherless Children" and "Soul of a Man".
"Dark Was the Night" is one of the music tracks on the Voyager Golden Record, copies of which were placed in 1977 on both the unmanned Voyager Project space probes. It is the penultimate track, preceding only the Cavatina from Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 130: the blind musician and the deaf one side by side. The astronomer Timothy Ferris, who worked with Carl Sagan in selecting those tracks, has said:
"Johnson's song concerns a situation he faced many times, nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight."
In 2012, Voyager 1 left the solar system and entered interstellar space, the first manmade spacecraft so to do. Voyager 2 is expected to do the same around 2016.
Ry Cooder's slide guitar title song and soundtrack music of the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas (1984) was based on "Dark Was the Night".
"Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" was played in the TV series The West Wing (season 5) episode 13, The Warfare of Genghis Khan. "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine" was played in the TV series The Walking Dead (season 5) episode 4 Slabtown.
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