Music of a Bygone Spirit

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945)

When Blind Willie Johnson recorded Motherless Children Have a Hard Time he could do it with conviction. He was reportedly blinded as a child when his father’s second wife threw lye into his face. I say “reportedly” because, like much of early blues history, confirmed facts about his life are hard to come by.  Stories, reliable or not, are relied upon. But that’s part of the intrigue.

For another example, there was reportedly a riot outside a New Orleans courthouse where he sang If I Had My Way I’d Tear this Building Down. But, then, maybe there wasn’t a riot and he was just arrested by a officer who thought he was trying to incite courthouse vandalism. In any case, it’s entirely believable that a crowd could get into a frenzy over Johnson’s propulsive retelling of Samson and Delilah. It’s as if Blind Willie identifies with blind Samson and pours out all the frustrations of his own blindness as Samson is poised between the pillars, their collapse imminent.

Blind Willie recorded in 1927-30, before there were hard demarcations among musical styles. If his music must be put into one category, “spirituals” is as good as any, but there’s also blues in the mix. Musically, Willie sings with a gruff and gravelly voice and plays the slide guitar well enough to impress Eric Clapton. That’s right: we’re talking about slide guitar bluesy spirituals.

If you were a blind black man playing on the streets for pocket change in the 1920’s South, you knew something about sin and you never felt too distant from poverty and death. So there’s no giddiness when he sings:

My mother, she’s in glory, thank God I’m on my way
Father, he’s gone too, and sister she could not stay
I’m trusting Him everyday, to bear my burdens away
‘Cause I just can’t keep from crying sometimes
Well, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes
When my heart’s full of sorrow and my eyes are filled with tears
Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes

(Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying) But then, in a life filled with sorrow, one can find comfort in an unchanging God:

God in the time of sickness
God in the doctor too
In the time of the influenza
He truly was a God to you
Well he’s God, God don’t never change
He’s God, always will be God

But Johnson doesn’t just present the weary side of life. There is comfort in looking to God, for “trouble will soon be over, sorrow will have an end.” (Trouble Will Soon Be Over) In the meantime, God’s love is “richer fuller deeper… sweeter as the years roll by.” (Sweeter as the Years Roll By)

Johnson only recorded thirty songs, and they weren’t all narrowly “spiritual.” God Moves on the Water is a chilling narrative about the sinking of the Titanic with the refrain: “God moves, moves, God moves, ah, and the people had to run and pray.”

Though it’s not typical of Blind Willie Johnson, you have to hear Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, which is taken be a musical depiction of the death of Christ. (See the link on this page under “Tunes.”) In fact, it’s not typical of anyone or anything. Consisting of nothing more than ethereal slide guitar, humming and moaning, it’s transcendent and haunting. It’s also in outer space somewhere, having been included in the song selection of The Voyager, launched in 1977.

So the aliens are in for a treat. And, with the spirit of Blind Willie Johnson’s music being so alien to our own age, it’s our treat, too.

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2 Comments

Filed under Blues

2 responses to “Music of a Bygone Spirit

  1. Zrim

    Johnson may capture something about experiencing sin, but Diamond captures something about experiencing REvivhal:

    • I’m generally anti-pop on principle, but Diamond really did capture something there. I remember the more raucous Hot August Nights version. I didn’t know he was ever that young.

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