Blind Willie Johnson (1897–1945)
By Bill Berry
“Probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear” – Eric Clapton, commenting on Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine
“The greatest example of slide guitar ever recorded” – Jack White, on Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground
“I’ve tried all my life – worked very hard and every day of my life, practically – to play in that style.” – Ry Cooder, on Dark Was The Night.
“Excellent good!” – Blind Willie McTell when asked if his friend Blind Willie Johnson was a good guitar player.
“Excellent good.” That about covers it. The sound that gospel shouter Blind Willie Johnson coaxed from his guitar’s six strings, is literally out of this world. His recording of Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground was chosen along with 29 other works, including compositions by Bach, Beethoven, and Berry – Chuck that is – to represent earth aboard Voyager 1; a space probe launched by NASA on September 5, 1977. As of this writing, it’s over 14 billion miles from earth. Blind Willie Johnson’s music is out there, representing the people of earth. Wonder what he would have thought about that…
We have to wonder, quite a bit, about the life of Blind Willie Johnson. We know he was born January 22, 1897 in Independence, Texas, the son of Willie Johnson Sr. and Mary Fields. According to remembrances from his second wife Angeline, Johnson’s interest in music and religion began when he was young. At five, he decided to become a preacher. That same year he received his first guitar, a home-made affair, crafted and given to him by his father. His mother died soon after and his father remarried a woman who proved to be unfaithful. When Willie Sr. found out about his new bride’s infidelity, he beat her. She took her revenge out on his son, throwing lye into his face and blinding him. Willie Johnson Jr. was only seven years old. At least that’s how Angeline told it. There’s also the story told by his first wife, Willie B. Harris, that he went blind by watching an eclipse through a piece of glass. Bluesman Tom Shaw recalled that Johnson told him personally that he went blind from wearing an old pair of spectacles he found. We know that Johnson once had sight. How he lost it, we can only wonder.
Blind Willie Johnson spent his youth in Marlin, Texas, attending the Church of God in Christ on Commerce Street. “Willie sang in the churches and for religious meetings on the outskirts of town,” Samuel Charters wrote in his 1959 book The Country Blues, the first of the great books on pre-war blues musicians. Charters was also the one who uncovered the only known photo of Johnson in a Harlem microfilm archive. “I was so nervous my hands kept slipping on the knob as I went through page after page,” he shared in a 2010 interview. “Then there he was. I couldn’t breathe for a minute – I just sat staring at the screen.”
Johnson’s life as a professional singer began on the streets of Marlin. The young Blind Willie Johnson was mentored by a local blind singer, fiddle player, and preacher named Blind Madkin Butler who Johnson would accompany on guitar during church gatherings. During the ‘20s Johnson was based in Hearne, Texas and paid his bills by busking back and forth to Dallas. According to Brenham preacher Adam Booker, in an interview with Samuel Charters in 1955, Johnson would sometimes perform on opposite street corners across from Blind Lemon Jefferson,
competing for the change from the crowds. He also toured with Blind Willie McTell, who shared in a 1940 interview, “Blind Willie Johnson was a personal pal of mine. He and I played together in many different cities, parts of the states, and different parts of the country. From Maine to the Mobile Bay.”
It is known that Johnson married at least twice. In 1926 or early 1927, Johnson married Willie B. Harris, the feminine voice on two thirds of Johnson’s recordings. The couple had a daughter, Sam Faye Johnson Kelly in 1931, and Harris shared that she and Willie broke up in the early to mid-1930s. Johnson married his second wife Angeline in 1927. The two were said to have met in Dallas, where Johnson was working as a street singer.
On June 21st, 1927, in Dallas, as Johnson was rollicking his way through If I Had My Way, the young Angeline walked up alongside him and began singing along. Johnson took notice. After some pleasantries, Angeline invited Johnson to her house to sing hymns. The story she shared with Sam Charters went like this: she sat down at her piano and belted out a version of If I Had My Way that so impressed Willie that he urged her on, shouting “Go on, gal, tear it up!” When they had finished singing, she made him a gumbo, helping him with the lobster claws. He proposed that night. “That’s what I wanted,” she said. The wedding was held the next day, June 22, 1927.
When he married Angeline, he may have been married to both women simultaneously, though probably not in the legal sense. Johnson was also said to be married to a sister of blues artist L. C. Robinson though no marriage certificates have been discovered.
While Johnson arranged his own material, much of his repertoire was likely learned from other artists. Prior to his recordings being made, Bye and Bye I’m Going to See the King had been recorded both by Arizona Danes and Blind Maimie Forhand. Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There had prior versions by Blind Joe Taggart, Blind Rosevelt Graves, Washington Phillips, and the Pace Jubilee Singers.
Other songs were from 19th Century hymnals and taught to him by Angeline. The original text of Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground was written in the 18th century by Thomas Haweis.
1 Dark was the night, and cold the groundOn which the Lord was laid;His sweat, like drops of blood ran down;In agony He prayed:
2 Father, remove this bitter cup,If such Thy sacred will;If not, content to drink it up,Thy pleasure I fulfill.
3 Go to the garden, sinner; seeThose precious drops that flow,The heavy load He bore for thee—For thee He lies so low.
4 Then learn of Him the cross to bear;Thy Father’s will obey;And when temptations press thee near,Awake to watch and pray.
Blind Joe Taggart used the first verse for his 1928 recording Been Listening All Day Long. In fact, Dark Was The Night had been reproduced in hymn books from the early 19th Century. Nathaniel R. Dett included it in his Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro as Sung at Hampton Institute, published in 1927. Newman I. White also included it in his 1928 collection American Negro Folk-Songs, noting that the song had been sung in the fields by negro workers as early as 1905.
Johnson was not the first gospel singer to play slide guitar on record. Reverend Edward W. Clayborn (The Guitar Evangalist) cut his first sides for Vocallion in 1926. Sylvester Weaver was the first to record blues with slide guitar for Okeh in 1923. While these artists were talented, it is Blind Willie Johnson’s dexterity and melodic taste that have stood the test of time. “Anybody who’s ever played the bottleneck guitar with some degree of accomplishment is quoting Blind Willie to this day,” says Austin slide guitarist Steve James. It’s been said that Johnson used a pocketknife to play slide. If so, that would be a pretty neat trick. Would he hold it between two fingers? Willie B. Harris recalled that for the Dark Was The Night session, Johnson used a knife and a thumb pick. Then again, Blind Willie McTell remembered Johnson playing his slide guitar with a brass ring. The only known photograph of Johnson is angled in such a way as to not share the secret of his slide finger.
For over twenty years, Johnson played in the streets, honing his craft and sharing his genius with the crowds and passers-by that were called by his voice and guitar. It wouldn’t be long until he would get the opportunity to share his music with the rest of the world.
In December 1927, Columbia Records artist and repertory man Frank Walker took his field-recording unit to Dallas and Memphis. A true recording industry giant, Walker had previously signed legendary performers such as Riley Puckett, Charlie Poole, and Bessie Smith. While his story would be complete with the artists he found and recorded in the pre-war era, his crowning achievement was the discovery and signing of Hank Williams in 1947. Here, he shared what the traveling A&R man’s life was like in an interview with Mike Seeger from 1962:
“We would decide, for instance, to record down in Johnson City, Tennessee, and write down to various people that you heard about and you would let that be known. It would be mentioned in the paper and the word would get around in churches and schoolhouses that somebody was going to come down there for a recording. We recorded in dozens and dozens of different places, all the way from San Antonio to Houston and Dallas and Johnson City, Tennessee and Memphis and Little Rock and New Orleans and Atlanta and everywhere. But that’s the way we built it up in advance – getting the word around that a certain time of the year we were going to be there. And these people would show up sometimes from eight or nine hundred miles away. In those days, the recording was done on solid wax and you had to bring containers of the waxes you used. So you were very careful and very choosy.”
The East Coast record companies, like Columbia, made frequent trips to Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans, and Atlanta between 1927 and 1930, often setting up makeshift studios in hotels. The 1927 Blind Willie Johnson sessions are said to have taken place in the Columbia Records storefront complex, at #2000- #2004 North Lamar St., Dallas, lasting from December 2nd through the 6th. Along with Johnson, artists at those dates included popular gospel singer and dulceola player Washington Phillips who went on to record 18 sides for Columbia, Lillian Glinn with Willie Tyson on piano, and Coley Jones and the Dallas String Band. There were blues singers William McCoy, Hattie Hudson, and Gertrude Perkins, and impersonater and human sound effects machine Billikan Johnson, whose Interurban Blues featured train impersonations. Frank Walker noted that acts would audition in the morning, rehearse in the afternoon and record in the evening.
A pattern for recording sessions was set for the next few years. Columbia visited Atlanta each spring and autumn to replenish the hillbilly catalogue as well as make a few race recordings. Late autumn of 1928, they went to Dallas to record further gospel titles by Johnson and Washington Phillips, as well as some new found pianist-singers like Whistlin’ Alex Moore and Texas Bill Day. It is assumed that Johnson recorded two non-religious titles as Blind Texas Marlin during this session, though the matrix numbers are without song titles and the recordings remain unissued. In 1929, Columbia’s recording unit made their rounds again, this time including a stop in New Orleans where they recorded Johnson on December 10th and 11th. Legend has it that Johnson was arrested in New Orleans for nearly inciting a riot. While singing for tips outside of a Custom House, a passing officer heard him singing, If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down. The officer assumed the singer was trying to rally the crowd to create trouble, rather than sharing the gospel in his biblical song about Samson and Delilah.
Blind Willie Johnson’s first release, I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole, came out in January 1928 and sold 15,400 copies, a hit at the time. He was also reviewed in the New York literary magazine, The Bookman. Critic Edward Abbe Niles enthused about “Johnson’s violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans, and his inspired guitar in a primitive and frightening Negro religious song, Nobody’s Fault but Mine.”
Johnson’s next releases were average sellers for the Columbia 14000D series. In early 1929, he sold around 5000 copies per record, compared to Barbecue Bob’s 6000 or Bessie Smith’s 9000 – 10,000 records sold. By mid-1930, Johnson was a star of the Columbia catalogue. His records continued to sell in the 5000 per release range while Barbecue Bob’s sales had dropped down to the 2000s and Bessie Smith’s sales hovered around 3000. By this time the average race record release would have initial sales of around 1000 copies. By 1931, the depression had caught up with gospel record sales and Johnson’s numbers had dropped with the rest, selling in the hundreds rather than thousands.
After his recording career fizzled, Johnson settled in Beaumont, Texas, with Angeline, and became an ordained minister. In the 1940s, as Reverend W.J. Johnson, he occasionally broadcast spiritual music over radio stations in Texas and Louisiana and ran the House of Prayer from his Beaumont home.
Blind Willie Johnson died on September 18, 1945. The popular story of his death, from the 1955 Samuel Charters interview with Angeline, is that he died from pneumonia caught after a fire in their home. After the fire was put out they made the decision to stay in their smoke and water damaged home, laying old newspapers on their wet bed rather than finding other shelter. According to Angeline, over the next few days Johnson became sick but was refused entrance into the hospital, due to being blind, black, or both. He died of pneumonia soon afterward. However, there may be another cause of death. This less than flattering version of his end might be the case.
According to his death certificate, Johnson died of malaria with syphilis being a contributing cause. In 2010, while studying Johnson’s life, researcher Shane Ford uncovered a curious piece of medical information. It so happens that in the 1930’s and 40’s it was common to inject malaria into patients with degenerative syphilis as it “could halt the progression of general paresis.” Malarial fever could sometimes destroy the syphilis. This practice continued until penicillin was mass-produced in the late ‘40s. Blind Willie Johnson may have been one of the 20% of patients who died from this brutal remedy.
Since his death, the grave of Blind Willie Johnson has been unmarked. But thanks to years of research and multiple visits to the Blanchette Cemetery in Beaumont, Texas by Jack Ortman (Austin, Texas), the final resting place of this influential musician has received the recognition it deserves. After reading an article in the Austin American Statesman by Michael Corcoran, Ortman learned that Johnson’s death certificate stated he was buried in Blanchette Cemetery.
Johnson had been buried in a pauper’s grave (remember the final scene from Amadeus) in what was then called the “colored section” of the Blanchette Cemetery, which had a chain link fence separating the white and black graves. Sam Charters searched for his grave to no avail in the 1950s. Corcoran abandoned his search in 2003. In 2009, Ortman believed the time was right to try again and credits his discovery to a number of factors.
“Right from the beginning, I felt, if I were to have any success, I needed the involvement of all the players,” Ortman stated in Jazz News. “My objective was getting to know the people at the cemetery and all the historical commissions on a personal basis”. Discovering the location took a combination of researching the “Industrial Maps” of Beaumont from the 1920s to the 1960s, having a new director of the Blanchette Cemetery, utilizing overhead aerial photos from satellites in space, “and a lot of luck.”
“I think other researchers had been looking for a gravestone with Blind Willie’s name chiselled on it,” he added. “When I found out he was buried in a paupers grave, it changed the focus of my search. After I eliminated all the ‘marked’ and ‘paid for’ tombs and narrowed what was left as the paupers graves, I had found the last of the missing ‘Blues Founding Fathers’.” Ortman discovered the gravesite almost 65 years after Johnson’s death.
Blind Willie Johnson’s memorial stone was placed in the vicinity of his final resting place, in the unmarked Blanchette cemetery in Beaumont, Texas. Musicians, historians, and well-wishers attended the tribute. A year later, the Jefferson County Historical Commission in collaboration with the Texas Historical Commission placed a historical marker at the last location where Johnson lived as listed on his death certificate, the “House of Prayer” at 1440 Forrest in Beaumont, Texas. The memory of Blind Willie Johnson was finally set in stone.
In 1977, a team of researchers led by Carl Sagan was assigned to put together a collection of recordings and photographs that best represented Earth and the human experience for sending on the Voyager probe to the far reaches of the universe. Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground was chosen by NASA consultant Timothy Ferris to be one of 30 recordings selected for the Voyager Golden Record. According to Ferris, “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”. Johnson’s recording of Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground was also added to the National Recording Registry in 2010 as a work deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress.
Johnson is legendary for his rough vocals and quicksilver slide playing. While his songs are mostly religious in nature, substitute the subject matter and you have what are amongst the most powerful blues recordings of the pre-war era. The release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, brought a number of forgotten artists back to the conscience of the young, folk music loving public. Johnson’s John the Revelator was one of the tracks that made people stand up and take notice. Blues and gospel icons such as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, Nina Simone, and particulalry Rev. Gary Davis helped to bring Johnson’s music to the next generation of musicians and music lovers. Since then, his songs have been performed and recorded by a who’s who of rock and folk music: Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Peter Paul & Mary, Fairport Convention, the White Stripes, Ben Harper, and Beck, to name a few. His vocal influence can be heard in singers as diverse as Chester Burnette (Howlin’ Wolf), Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefhart), and Tom Waits.
Blind Willie Johnson cut 30 sides for Columbia between December 1927 and April 1930 and became one of the the label’s most popular “race” artists, often outselling even Bessie Smith. This street corner evangelist, perhaps the finest slide guitar player the world has ever known, made some of the greatest records of the 20th century. His classics include, It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine, If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down, Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying, Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning, John the Revelator, Let Your Light Shine On Me, and his masterpiece, Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground. There was something otherworldly about Johnson’s playing that separated him from the great blues players. Something divine. It’s no wonder his spirit lives on.
Text © 2020 Bill Berry