From the July 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By GREG CAHILL
When NASA rocketed a gold-plated album into the cold, dark reaches of space aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1977, the space agency chose to showcase Earth’s music, including Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F (First Movement) and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” That celestial sojourn, a one-way trip through the galaxy, is a long way from the dusty street corners of Beaumont, Texas, where before his death in 1949, Johnson scratched out a meager living singing and playing gospel-blues songs on a beat-up slide guitar.
Some purists still rankle at calling Johnson a blues player, because he recorded only religious songs. Yet, in 1999, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and The Penguin Guide to the Blues hails this unique artist for his “driving rhythms, his beautiful slide playing, and his ferocious, sandblasted basso falsetto.” Indeed, in his lifetime, Johnson’s songs were covered by such notable blues artists as Robert Johnson (no relation) and Mississippi Fred McDowell. More recently, Blind Willie’s songs have been recorded by everyone from Beck to Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan to Nina Simone, Eric Clapton to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. American primitive guitarist John Fahey once said that hearing Johnson’s “Praise God I’m Satisfied” in 1957 inspired him to sign obscure blues and traditional country artists to his Takoma label.
Still, it can be argued that Johnson doesn’t get his due and is in danger of slipping into obscurity.
Now, the 11-song tribute album God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson (Alligator) seeks to bring deserved attention to this unique artist. The album was shepherded by producer Jeffrey Gaskill, who assembled the award-winning 2002 collection Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan (Columbia/Legacy). “When I finished the Gotta Serve Somebody project, a friend told me, ‘You needed to listen to Blind Willie Johnson, a gospel artist who recorded in the blues style,’” Gaskill recalls, during a phone call from his home in western Massachusetts. “When I listened to the music, I discovered that I was familiar with most of Blind Willie’s songs, but hadn’t put them together with a specific artist. And that piqued my interest and got me excited about him. Also, there are a lot of similarities between his body of work and Dylan’s gospel songs.”
The tribute album runs the gamut from pop to gospel to roots, and there’s a decidedly contemporaneous feel to these songs. Among the all-star lineup are Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, Luther Dickinson, Lucinda Williams, Sinead O’Connor, Cowboy Junkies, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, and Maria McKee.
Dickinson contributes a version of “Bye and Bye I’m Going See the King,” featuring the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. “Willie’s records were always on the top shelf of my dad’s record collection [his father was the late producer Jim Dickinson],” Luther says during a call from the road outside of Portland, Oregon. “I first heard this song at a Corey Harris sound check and was so taken with it that I knew some day I would want to record it. Even now, I’m amazed at how powerful Blind Willie’s repertoire is. The lyrics and melodies are so strong.”
O’Connor provides the album’s pop highlight, “Trouble Will Soon be Over.” Waits hammers out a pair of rootsy tracks, including “John the Revelator” and “The Soul of a Man, on which Waits samples a Library of Congress recording of “East Texas Rag” by Casey Smith (also known as Smith Casey). Williams dishes up a bluesy cover of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” And Jones digs deep to deliver a haunting, bare-bones, acoustic version of the hymn “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.”
“That was a big challenge for her,” Gaskill says of Jones, “but she did a great job with it and ‘Dark Is the Night’ has held up as such a monumental American recording. Some folks have only heard it as an instrumental [the music was used in Ry Cooder’s instrumental soundtrack to Paris, Texas] and even Blind Willie Johnson often only hummed along when he performed it, because the music is so powerful that no words are needed.”
For Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies—the band contributes a rendition of “Jesus Is Coming Soon”—the project provided a chance to shine a light on Johnson’s powerful recordings. “I wasn’t familiar with that song, but Jeffrey suggested it,” says Timmins, during a call from the band’s studio. “It wasn’t an obvious choice—I thought this will be a challenge, and a challenge is always good.”
While recording the edgy track, which would be right at home on the Sopranos soundtrack, the Cowboy Junkies layered three guitars, built on a foundation of acoustic guitar, and sampled Blind Willie himself for the choruses. “We wanted to maintain his energy level, so we cheated by having Blind Willie join us on the recording,” Timmins says with a quick laugh. “That really drove the whole song. I approached it as an acoustic track on which I drove the song with an acoustic guitar. But we wanted to add some of that frenetic energy he has on his songs, so I decided to add various electrics, including a little bit of slide and some feedback to build the track dynamically.”
And why are the Cowboy Junkies so drawn to Blind Willie’s music?
“His original recordings, recorded almost 100 years ago, have such a rawness to them—he goes all out with his voice, his guitar playing, and his approach to the songs,” Timmins says. “And that’s what you want to hear in rock ’n’ roll. Even across all these decades that energy still comes across.”
Johnson’s own story is one of tragedy, triumph, and more tragedy. He was raised in Marlin, Texas, a small town an hour’s drive from Dallas, though it’s believed that Johnson was born in nearby Temple in 1902 (or 1903). At the age of seven, during a domestic spat, his mother threw lye at his father, but accidentally splashed the caustic substance into her son’s eyes, blinding him. He eventually learned to play guitar—he played all his songs in open-D tuning using a pocketknife as a slide. He also played piano, contributing music to prayer-revival meetings at the Marlin Church of God in Christ.
‘Blind Willie should be right up there with Robert Johnson and more people should be aware of him.’—Jeffrey Gaskill , producer
In 1927, Johnson laid down his first tracks with a Columbia field recording unit, according to a sparse entry in the otherwise exhaustive Folk & Blues: The Encyclopedia. A year later, he entered a studio to record, with his first wife, Willie B. Harris, singing backing vocals. His debut single, a 78 rpm recording of “I Knew His Blood Can Make Me Whole”/“Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed,” outsold a Bessie Smith recording that was released during that same period. In total, Johnson recorded 30 songs. His last recording session took place in 1930
For almost two decades, Johnson continued to perform on the streets. After his house in Beaumont burned down in the late 1940s, he slept in the wet ruins and contracted a fatal case of pneumonia.
His old recordings, remastered and reissued in 1993 by Columbia/Legacy, echo the chilling manner in which Johnson preached through his gospel music. But his bluesy, slide-guitar–driven street evangelicism had roots in ancient African spiritual traditions. The eerie quality of Johnson voice, and the way in which he used the slide to blend his guitar with his voice, is an example of a practice known as voice masking, Robert Palmer wrote in his acclaimed 1981 book Deep Blues. “The finest African masks are now valued as precious art objects, but in village rituals these masks were simply the visual aspect of a masking procedure that also involved modifying the voice,” Palmer noted. “The masker was often believed to be possessed by a god or spirit, so his voice had to change along with his appearance. Some masks had mirliton membranes [from a vine] mounted in their mouthpieces and the maskers sang through them, producing a buzzing timbre not unlike that of a kazoo. Other masked singers, especially in the slave coast region, mastered deep chest growls, false bass tones produced in the back of their throat, strangulated shrieks, and other deliberately bizarre effects.”
These extreme voice modifications, associated in West Africa with religious or ritual practices, Palmer added, figured prominently in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not in secular music but in black American sacred singing. It is most evident in Johnson’s early recordings, he wrote, but also can be found in the recordings of Charley Patton, Son House, and Rubin Lacy, three bluesmen who at one time or another were preachers and religious singers.
Gaskill hopes the tribute album will re-establish Johnson’s deep-blues roots. “One of the initial goals of this project was to preserve Blind Willie’s message and his body of work,” Gaskill says.
“It’s about the content and what he stood for and what he had to say. I wanted to point out the historical significance—after all, he should be right up there with Robert Johnson and more people should be aware of him.
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“I’m really proud of this record and I don’t usually say that because it sounds like I’m boasting, but in a lot of ways it exceeds my expectations. It works well together and represents his body of work. It gives a nod to traditionalism with recordings by Luther Dickenson, Derek Trucks, and the Blind Boys. But then it also is contemporary as well, particularly when you listen to Cowboy Junkies.
“I think that together they capture the message of the music and show that it can fit on radio in 2016. It can be dropped in anywhere—it represents Blind Willie Johnson, yet is perfectly contemporary.”