2019 Record Store Day Black Friday release - Blind Willie Johnson was the greatest and most popular recorded guitar evangelist who influenced generations of musicians. His unique, intense, emotional and haunting gruff voice—coupled with some of the finest slide-guitar of any of his peers—firmly established Johnson’s status as one of the premier gospel-blues artists of all time. Between 1927 and 1930, Johnson recorded 30 powerful and timeless landmark songs for Columbia Records in five sessions in Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta, generating strong sales and national fame.
Johnson was born January 25, 1897 in Pendleton, Texas (near Waco) to sharecropper George Johnson and his wife Mary Fields. The family eventually relocated to Marlin where Johnson spent his childhood under the inspiration of the local Baptist church. This motivated his desire to become an ordained Baptist minister and traveling musician promoting the gospel. Blinded in an accident at the age of seven, Johnson’s opportunities to earn a living were limited to performing on the street corners of various Texas towns, accompanying himself on guitar with a tin cup tied with wire to the neck of his Stella guitar to collect donations. Deeply religious, Johnson was a devoted gospel singer who used the expressiveness of the blues as a vehicle to promote the old spirituals and hymns he performed. At some point Johnson came under the influence of his only known mentor, the blind preacher musician Madkin Butler whose powerful singing and preaching delivery set the standard for Blind Willie’s own unique approach.
By 1927, Johnson quickly became a well-known evangelist who attracted the attention of the legendary talent scout Frank Walker of Columbia Records. On December 3, 1927, in a temporary studio in the Deep Ellum district of Dallas (accompanied by his wife Willie B. Harris who occasionally sang on the street with him), Johnson recorded six groundbreaking songs. The session included the iconic slide guitar classic, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” the wordless haunting response to Christ’s crucifixion that remains one of the masterpieces of American music and that also articulates Johnson’s lifetime of suffering and sadness. Ry Cooder described it as “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American Music.” Jack White called it “the greatest example of slide guitar ever recorded.”
In 1977, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was one of 27 samples of music included on the Voyager Golden Record selected to represent the human experience on Earth for NASA’s Voyager spacecraft’s probe to other life forms in the universe. In 2010, the song was also selected by the Library of Congress as an addition to the National Recording Registry which selects recordings that are deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In 2011, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The list of artists covering Johnson’s repertoire include Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, John Fahey, The White Stripes, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and countless others.
His home in Beaumont, Texas was destroyed by fire in 1945. With nowhere else to go he continued to live in the ruins of his house. Johnson contracted malarial fever due to exposure and died on September 18, 1945.
|A||Dark Was The Night - Cold Was The Ground||3:22|
|B||It's Nobody's Fault But Mine||3:11|