By Elijah Wald
More than sixty years after his death, Blind Willie Johnson’s records continue to capture listeners in a way that few singers or musicians have equaled. The list of artists he has influenced goes back to Robert Johnson and forward to the White Stripes. The most obviously indebted would include several generations of hard country gospel singers, from the Blind Boys of Alabama to the Staple Singers, and the most soulful and virtuosic slide guitarists, from Mississippi Delta bluesmen to Ry Cooder.
Johnson was a Texas gospel singer and guitarist, the kind of performer now remembered as a “street corner evangelist.” He traveled the state with his wife, singing on sidewalks and in storefront churches, and began to record in 1927, the gospel legend to blues contemporary Blind Lemon Jefferson. His voice was a gruff shout, capable of carrying long distances without the aid of amplification. His guitar playing was like another voice, a high, keening moan teased from the steel strings with a brass slide or a knife.
Most people today associate slide guitar with blues, but no blues artist ever played with the subtlety and harmonic brilliance Johnson achieved. Maybe it was just a natural gift, hard work, and superb taste. Maybe the range of hymns and gospel songs he played had more melodic and chordal range than blues and folk songs, and forced him to evolve a more sophisticated approach. Or maybe it was the warm support of the black church community, listening and responding with more attention and passion than the people dancing to blues in juke joints.
In any case, Johnson’s greatest work has an unearthly depth and power. His most famous guitar piece, a largely instrumental version of an Easter lament, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was used by the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini to accompany the crucifixion scene in his Gospel According to St. Matthew, and reworked by Ry Cooder as the theme from Paris, Texas, as well as being sent into space on the Voyager probe.
Cooder called that song “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music,” and throughout his career his slide guitar style has been deeply informed by Johnson’s work. It is probably through his influence that it reached the Rolling Stones—though their most famous gospel performance, “You Got to Move” was based on a recording by yet another Johnson disciple, Mississippi Fred McDowell. Through McDowell’s work, Johnson’s style became the underpinning of a whole genre of Mississippi blues, performed by people like R.L. Burnside, and picked up by modern players like the North Mississippi All-Stars and Jack White. Among other rockers, Led Zeppelin recorded two of Johnson’s songs, “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The former song was also featured on Bob Dylan’s first album, while the latter song has also been recorded by several later artists, including Ben Harper.
In the African-American gospel world, Johnson’s playing foretold a whole genre of musicians, now known as “sacred steel” guitarists, but he was even more influential as a singer and popularizer of songs. His rough, preaching style helped to spread the “hard” gospel style that would be the foundation for soul artists like Otis Redding and Solomon Burke, and his country inflections rubbed off on singers like Rev. Gary Davis and Pops Staples of the Staples Singers, who also covered several of his songs. Such gospel favorites as “Motherless Children” (recorded by everyone from Son House and Jesse Fuller to Eric Clapton and Lucinda Williams) and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” (recorded by Gary Davis, Fred McDowell and Hot Tuna) first reached a wide audience through his recordings, which were popular throughout the southern United States.
In his time, Johnson was considered a singing gospel preacher. Today, he is called a “holy bluesman,” reflecting all the blues and rock fans and musicians who have been inspired by his work. Either way, there is no more compelling voice in early American music. His music lives on, both in the gospel world and in genres he never could have imagined, and it is a fitting honor that his legacy be saluted and carried forward into the 21st century. –Elijah Wald
Elijah Wald is a writer and musician whose books include “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues,” and Dave Van Ronk’s memoir of the 60’s folk revival “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” http://www.elijahwald.com/