By Michael Corcoran
From “Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music” (TCU Press)
When Jack White of the White Stripes announced at Stubb’s Austin in June 2003, “It’s good to be in Texas, the home of Blind Willie Johnson,” you can be sure that few on hand had ever heard of the gospel blues singer/guitarist from Marlin, who pioneered a ferocity that still lives in modern rock.
The first songs Blind Willie recorded, on a single December day in Dallas in 1927, are more familiar. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was covered by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton did “Motherless Children,” Bob Dylan turned Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” into “In My Time of Dying” on his 1962 debut LP and “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down” has been appropriated by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Staple Singers.
Johnson’s haunting masterpiece “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground),” also recorded in that first session, was chosen by musicologist Alan Lomax for an album placed aboard the Voyager 1 in 1977 on its journey to the ends of the universe. Should aliens happen upon the spacecraft and, with the record player provided, listen to that eerie, moaning, steel-sliding memorial to the Crucifixion, they will know almost as much about Blind Willie Johnson as we do.
Beyond five recording dates from 1927-1930 that yielded 30 tracks—ten each in Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta—the rough-voiced singer has remained something of a biographical question mark. Just finding his death certificate corrected such misinformation as his dates of birth (1897, not 1902) and death (1945, not ’49).
But finding witnesses who knew Johnson was about as easy as interviewing folks who lived through World War I. Most were dead or too old to remember. Or, like Sam Faye Kelly, the only child of Blind Willie that we know of, they were too young to realize what was going on six, seven decades ago. “I remember him singing here in the kitchen and reciting from the Bible,” said Kelly, who was 72 when I interviewed her in 2003. Kelly, whose mother Willie B. Harris sang backup on Blind Willie’s later records, was back in Marlin, living in the falling-down house at 817 Hunter St. where she was most likely conceived. She passed away in 2005, without ever receiving a penny for her father’s songs and arrangements on albums that have sold many million copies. It’s almost as if her father didn’t exist.
Folks started looking for Blind Willie Johnson when his “John the Revelator” jumped out of Harry Smith’s monumental Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 like a Pentecostal preacher. “Well, who’s that writin’?” Blind Willie called out in a fog-cutter bass, with his amen queen Willie B. responding, “John the Revelator.” The repetition of those dissimilar, tent revival voices created a rhythm of dignified hardship, a struggle redeemed by faith. Thumb-picked guitar lines danced around the rough/smooth tension as the devil slid into the back pew. In just three years, Blind Willie Johnson produced a significant body of work that transports the listener from ancient Africa to modern times. The mystery gives the music more pull.
Just as the Book of Revelation was written on a scroll fastened by seven seals, Blind Willie Johnson’s story was one that begged to be unlocked.
He sang in three distinctive voices: the gruff false bass, the soulful natural tenor and through his expressive slide guitar, which often finished verses for him. They were the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost of his music, with Johnson a one-man Holy Trinity on the old “lining out” hymn “Dark Was the Night.” His guitar preached and his inner congregation hummed in response.
There are no words in Blind Willie’s version of “Dark,” but lyrics can be found to the Baptist hymn where it originated. It’s about the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested and tormented on the night before the Crucifixion. “Dark was the night and cold was the ground/ On which the Lord was laid/ His sweat like drops of blood ran down/In agony he prayed,” wrote Thomas Haweis in 1792.
It’s a song about the Passion and Blind Willie nailed it on the first take. Basing his soundtrack of Paris, Texas on “Dark,” Ry Cooder called it “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all of American music.”
You have to wonder what Columbia’s Frank B. Walker, who produced the Dallas sessions (which also discovered Washington Phillips), might have been thinking when this fully-formed blind artist came in out of nowhere to lay down that pure, primal sound. Even though Walker had signed blues superstar Bessie Smith in 1923, he probably wasn’t ready for Blind Willie’s wails and moans in that voice from the depths. But that experience probably helped Walker 20 years later when he auditioned and signed Hank Williams to his MGM recording contract.
Johnson’s initial popularity on Columbia’s 14000-D “race records” series was such that he was one of the only gospel blues artists whose 78s were reissued during the Depression (four records on Vocalion in 1935). He recorded 18 months before the debut of the more celebrated Delta blues icon Charley Patton and perfected a slide guitar style with open D tuning that influenced everyone from Robert Johnson and Elmore James to Jimmy Page and Duane Allman. Vocally, you can be sure Patton understudy Chester Burnett took notice of Johnson’s wolflike howl.
And yet by the release of Harry Smith’s gateway drug, Johnson had been known as “the other Blind Willie,” not McTell of “Statesboro Blues” fame. The first to try to expand our knowledge of the gospel blues guitar hero was 24-year-old Samuel Charters (1929-2015), who set out for Texas in 1953 to see what he could find about two bluesmen named Johnson, who made their first records there. But while the icy trail of Robert Johnson, who recorded in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas the next year, made even hellhounds call it a day, Charters got lucky with the gospel Johnson. Sam and his wife Ann followed leads from Dallas to Beaumont, where they eventually met Blind Willie’s widow Angeline Johnson.
The Charters-produced 1957 album Blind Willie Johnson: His Story (Folkways) reissued more of Johnson’s music, including “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear the Building Down,” which the Grateful Dead called “Samson and Delilah” when they recorded it on 1977’s Terrapin Station. Side one was filled with Johnson’s biography, containing spoken remembrances from people who knew Blind Willie, most prominently Angeline.
Rather than detail what was wrong in some of those eyewitness reports, let’s tell you what we now know to be certain about Blind Willie Johnson, who died in Beaumont at age 48 on Sept. 18, 1945. The truth starts with a 1918 WWI draft registration card which popped up on ancestry.com around 2007. The card’s 21-year-old Willie Johnson lived in Houston’s Fourth Ward, a block east of the red light district nicknamed “The Reservation.”
It seemed unlikely that this Willie Johnson, blind, was Blind Willie Johnson, who had always been identified with Dallas and the area between Temple and Waco. But we know draft card Willie is our guy because of two pieces of information. Shane Ford, who spent a year on the trail of Johnson for a 2014 book about the search, found a 1935 Temple city directory that lists a “Willie Johnson, musician” living at the same 308 S. Fifth St. address as four other children of the man he said was his father in 1918. There were probably dozens of Willie Johnsons in Texas who were musicians at the time, and probably more than a couple who were blind. But confirmation comes from the 1931 birth certificate of Sam Faye Johnson, found at the Falls County Clerk’s office. Father Willie Johnson, musician, said he was from Temple.
Blind Willie’s parents were Dock Johnson and Mary King, married May 2, 1894, in Meridian, Texas, the town closest to the ranch where famed folklorist John A. Lomax grew up. The Johnsons moved about 50 miles south, to Bell County, before Willie Johnson was born.
According to Angeline Johnson, Willie became blind at age seven when his stepmother threw lye in his face to avenge a beating from his father. Willie B. Harris told Dallas blues fan Dan Williams that her former husband lost his sight by looking at an eclipse of the sun through a piece of broken glass. Whatever the reason, Johnson’s blindness left him two options for survival: beggar or musician.
Johnson was not the first gospel singer to play slide guitar on record. He was beat to the studio by a year and a half by Pittsburgh preacher Edward W. Clayborn and Delta player Sam “Boll Weevil Jackson” Butler. For blues, you can go back to 1923, when Louisville’s Sylvester Weaver recorded “Guitar Rag” (covered by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys as “Steel Guitar Rag” in 1936) for OKeh. Those guys were crafty and talented, but when Blind Willie started playing slide it’s like he invented the dunk. He paired gifts for improvisation and control in a way that’s unsurpassed.
“Anybody who’s ever played the bottleneck guitar with some degree of accomplishment is quoting Blind Willie to this day,” said Austin slide guitarist Steve James.
Johnson grew up one county over from Blind Lemon Jefferson and they often played on opposite street corners in Hearne, according to Adam Booker, the blind Brenham preacher interviewed by Charters in 1955. Yet, Blind Willie sounds little like the first national star of country blues. They played in the same general genre, with religious/ secular lyrics being the core difference, but had their own styles. Jefferson didn’t play the slide. And Johnson didn’t make the people dance like Blind Lemon did.
Together, apart, these two black, blind icons from Central Texas led the way in the country blues guitar field (religion optional). They taught, through example, Rev. Gary B. Davis and Mance Lipscomb, who each brought songs from the BWJ canon to the ‘60s folk revival.
Mississippi has its Delta and in Texas the blues cradle was the basin lands between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers, east of Dallas and north of Houston. Besides Jefferson and Johnson came Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas (Big Sandy), Texas Alexander (Jewett), Lillian Glinn (Hillsboro), Lightnin’ Hopkins (Centerville), Frankie Lee Sims (Marshall) and Mance Lipscomb (Navasota), as did gospel acts the Soul Stirrers (Trinity), Pilgrim Tavelers (Cleveland), F.W. McGee (Hillsboro) and Wash Phillips (Simsboro).
The busy season for corner singers was when the cotton came in and the streets were full of folks ready to party. Such money-making opportunities took Johnson to Hearne, Marlin, Brenham and Navasota, as well as the big cities. Because he was blind, he rode the train at reduced fare, if he had to pay at all. “Play us that ‘Titanic’ song!” was probably enough to carry Blind Willie wherever he wanted to go. His mentor Blind (Madkin) Butler of Hearne taught Willie “God Moves On the Water,” according to Mack McCormick, but it was the younger man who took it someplace out of this world.
We know he was wed to a woman named Mary Brown in San Antonio in 1932. A blurb in the Shiner News has Johnson playing the New Jerusalem Baptist Colored Church in Oct. 28, 1933 noting that there would be “reserved seats for white people.” He played the Hippodrome in NYC in 1938 according to a review. But there are few other traces left behind after his final recording session in April 1930.
In the 1945 Beaumont city directory, Johnson is listed as a Reverend living at the House of Prayer at 1440 Forest. According to his death certificate later that year, Johnson died from malarial fever, with syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.
But Angeline Johnson painted an even bleaker picture of Willie Johnson’s final days. She told Charters that her husband died from pneumonia after sleeping on wet newspapers the night after a fire. His life could’ve been saved, she said, except he was refused service at the hospital because he was black and blind. But such a scenario was “highly unlikely,” said McCormick, who had worked in a Houston emergency room in the Jim Crow era of legalized discrimination. “He would not have been turned away.”
The “malarial fever” cause of death seemed strange for East Texas and led many to believe Angeline Johnson’s pneumonia story. But before penicillin became available to the public in the late ’40s, doctors sometimes treated degenerative syphilis with injections of malaria. The high body temperatures could sometimes kill the syphilis bacteria, but the downside was that many—as high as 25 percent—of those treated died from malarial fever.
This many years later, the cause of death is unimportant. What he did with a guitar and a blessed bellow is all that matters. The music’s so supercharged with self-expression that the truth is right there for all to hear.
That’s why Alan Lomax chose “Dark Was the Night” to represent the human spirit on the “Golden Record” aboard Voyager 1, which continues its journey to the galaxy’s back yard. The interstellar space probe left the solar system in 2012 and continues its mission to find intelligent life in other planetary systems.
Should that record ever be played, beings billions and billions of miles away will know that the people of Earth are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal. They’ll know we have souls that live long after we’re buried.