"...Ry Cooder, who based his desolate soundtrack to Paris, Texas on “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, described it as 'the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.'..."
Blind Willie Johnson (January 22, 1897 – September 18, 1945)
Blind Willie Johnson - Dark Was The Night - Cold Was The Ground - Columbia (# 145320-1)
Recorded on December 3, 1927 in Dallas, Texas.
Listen & download here: http://thesweetestpsychopath.tumblr.com/post/172203158/blind-willie-johnson-dark-was-the-night-cold
Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground was included on the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977; this piece was used in the widely seen science show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan in 1980. Blind Willie Johnson’s music and life were featured in the 2003 film “The Soul of a Man” by Wim Wenders for the PBS series “The Blues.” The film deals extensively with the Voyager spacecraft recording. This recording also got Johnson mentioned on an episode of the television series The West Wing (see “The Warfare of Genghis Khan”); the fictional Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman used Johnson’s recording to show the depth and soul behind the space program. As mentioned by Lyman, Johnson’s music left the solar system on December 16, 2004. Dark Was The Night has also been covered by Jack Rose.
The song is also used in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew; Walk the Line, a biopic of country singer Johnny Cash; and The Devil’s Rejects, a serial killer film by rocker Rob Zombie. Ry Cooder, who based his desolate soundtrack to Paris, Texas on “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, described it as “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.”
26 August 2009
Blind Willie Johnson
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"Blind" Willie Johnson (January 22, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was an American singer and guitarist whose music straddled the border between blues and spirituals. While the lyrics of all of his songs were religious, his music drew from both sacred and blues traditions. Among musicians, he is considered one of the greatest slide or bottleneck guitarists, as well as one of the most revered figures of depression-era gospel music. His music is distinguished by his powerful bass thumb-picking and gravelly false-bass voice, with occasional use of a tenor voice.
Blind Willie Johnson was born in 1897 near Brenham, Texas (before the discovery of his death certificate, Temple, Texas had been suggested as his birthplace). When he was five, he told his father he wanted to be a preacher, and then made himself a cigar box guitar. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried soon after her death.
Johnson was not born blind, and, although it is not known how he lost his sight, Angeline Johnson told Samuel Charters that when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man. The stepmother then picked up a handful of lye and threw it, not at Willie's father, but into the face of young Willie.
It is thought that Johnson was married twice, first to a woman with the same first name, Willie B Harris, and later to a young singer named Angeline, who was the sister of blues guitarist L.C. Robinson. No marriage certificates have yet been discovered. As Angeline Johnson often sang and performed with him, the first person to attempt to research his biography, Samuel Charters, made the mistake of assuming it was Angeline who had sung on several of Johnson's records. However, later research showed that it was Johnson's first wife.
Johnson remained poor until the end of his life, preaching and singing in the streets of Beaumont, Texas to anyone who would listen. A city directory shows that in 1944, a Rev W J Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, Beaumont, Texas. This is the same address listed on Blind Willie's death certificate. In 1945, his home burned to the ground. With nowhere else to go, Johnson lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a wet bed. He lived like this until he contracted pneumonia two weeks later, and died. (The death certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.) In a later interview his wife said she tried to take him to a hospital but they refused to admit him because he was black, while other sources report that, according to Johnson's wife, his refusal was due to his blindness. Although there is some dispute as to where his grave is, members of the Beaumont community have committed to finding the site and preserving it.
His father would often leave him on street corners to sing for money, where his powerful voice left an indelible impression on passers-by. Legend has it that he was arrested for nearly starting a riot at a New Orleans courthouse with a powerful rendition of "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down", a song about Samson and Delilah. According to Samuel Charters, however, he was simply arrested while singing for tips in front of a Custom House, by a police officer who misconstrued the title lyric and mistook it for incitement.
Johnson made 30 commercial recording studio record sides in five separate sessions for Columbia Records from 1927–1930. On some of these recordings Johnson uses a fast rhythmic picking style, while on others he plays slide guitar. According to a reputed one-time acquaintance, Blind Willie McTell (1898-1959), Johnson played with a brass ring, although other sources cite him using a knife. The only known photograph of Johnson does not reveal any fretting instrument.
Some of Johnson's most famous recordings include "In My Time of Dying" (identified as "Jesus Make up My Dying Bed" on his recordings), the stirring "It's Nobody's Fault But Mine", his rendition of the famous gospel song "Let Your Light Shine On Me", as well as the raw, powerful "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground", where he sings in wordless hum and moans about the crucifixion of Jesus. This song was a "moaning" piece related to the Bentonia school of blues practiced by such "eerie voiced" artists as Skip James and Robert Johnson.
On 14 of his recordings he is accompanied by Willie B Harris or an as-yet-unidentified female singer. This group of recordings includes "Church I'm Fully Saved Today", "John the Revelator" (a cover of which is featured on the soundtrack of Blues Brothers 2000, sung by Taj Mahal), "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond", and "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning".
His records have kept his music tremendously influential and his songs have been covered by several popular artists, including Led Zeppelin (who included his photograph on their second album), Bob Dylan, The 77s, Beck, Phil Keaggy and The White Stripes (who have covered "John the Revelator", as well as covering "Motherless Children Have A Hard Time" and "Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Cryin'" live). "John the Revelator" was also recorded by delta blues musician Son House, and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" was recorded by another delta blues musician, Fred McDowell. In 1968, British group Fairport Convention recorded a cover of "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" under the title "The Lord is in this Place...How Dreadful Is This Place". "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down" was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary; retitled as "Samson and Delilah". It was frequently performed by the Grateful Dead and appears on the studio album Terrapin Station; Gary Davis also has recorded a version of the song; Bruce Springsteen has performed a version of the song live with the Seeger Sessions Band, In the opening scene of the second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Shirley Manson sings a version of this song. "Nobody's Fault But Mine" has also been covered by Mason Jennings, Nina Simone, and was modified by Led Zeppelin. Nick Cave has performed "John the Revelator" live, and based his song "City of Refuge," from his band the Bad Seeds' 1988 album Tender Prey, on the "Blind" Willie song of the same name. In the liner notes of a 2002 record by Derek Bailey, Marc Ribot compared "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground" to the music of Django Reinhardt and the avant garde guitarist Bailey. Many of his songs, and those of Rev. Gary Davis, were recorded in the late 1980s by gospel blues musicians Glenn Kaiser and Darrell Mansfield, on their album Trimmed & Burnin. In 1991 Bruce Cockburn covered "Soul of a Man" on his album Nothing But A Burning Light, the title in itself a line from the same song. In 1994 Ben Harper added a short cover excerpt of "By and By I'm Going To See The King" as a hidden track on his debut album "Welcome To The Cruel World".
In 2003 Deep Sea Records issued a CD tribute called Dark was the Night, featuring artists such as Martin Simpson, Gary Lucas, Mary Margaret O'Hara and Jody Stecher.
Johnson's recordings and legacy have crossed over into other media and cultural contexts. Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground was included on the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977; this piece was used in the widely seen science show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan in 1980. Blind Willie Johnson's music and life were featured in the 2003 film "The Soul of a Man" by Wim Wenders for the PBS series "The Blues." The film deals extensively with the Voyager spacecraft recording. This recording also got Johnson mentioned on an episode of the television series The West Wing (see "The Warfare of Genghis Khan"); the fictional Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman used Johnson's recording to show the depth and soul behind the space program. As mentioned by Lyman, Johnson's music left the solar system on December 16, 2004. Dark Was The Night has also been covered by Jack Rose.
The song is also used in Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew; Walk the Line, a biopic of country singer Johnny Cash; and The Devil's Rejects, a serial killer film by rocker Rob Zombie. Ry Cooder, who based his desolate soundtrack to Paris, Texas on "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", described it as "the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music."
In 2006 Eric Burdon covered his song "Soul of a Man" for his album Soul of a Man.
In 2009 4AD put out a compilation CD titled "Dark Was The Night", featuring Kronos Quartet covering the song "Dark Was The Night".
1. ^ a b Charters, 1993, p. 11.
2. ^ Corcoran, Michael. "The Soul of Blind Willie Johnson". Retrieved 2008-04-21. 4th paragraph from end
3. ^ Corcoran, Michael. "The Soul of Blind Willie Johnson". Retrieved 2008-11-13. 9th paragraph
4. ^ Charters, 1993, p. 14.
5. ^ www.users.bigpond.com/cosmic_voyager
6. ^ Corcoran, Michael. "The Soul of Blind Willie Johnson". Retrieved 2008-11-13
Charters, Samuel (1993). The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, CD booklet. Columbia/Legacy C2K 52835.
Blakey D.N. (2007). Revelation Blind Willie Johnson The Biography.
Charters, Samuel (1959). "The Country Blues" Ch. 12 - published in UK by: Jazz Book Club (1961). Some facts in the book are at variance with those given in this article and may represent an earlier stage of research
The Soul of Blind Willie Johnson
(Retracing the life of the Texas music icon)
By Michael Corcoran
When Jack White of the red-hot White Stripes announced "It's good to be in Texas, the home of Blind Willie Johnson," at Stubb's in June, most in the soldout crowd likely had never heard of the gospel blues singer/guitarist from Marlin who pioneered a ferocity that still lives in modern rock. We have become used to being saluted as the home of T-Bone Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others. But who is this Blind Willie Johnson?
The first songs he recorded, on a single day 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)" was chosen for an album placed aboard Voyager 1 in 1977 on its journey to the ends of the universe. Foreseeing an extraterrestrial intercept, astronomer Carl Sagan and his staff put together "Sounds of Earth" -- including ancient chants, the falling rain, a beating heart, Beethoven, Bach and Blind Willie.
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 the mysterious Blind Willie Johnson as we do.
On Monday, Martin Scorsese will introduce Johnson to Americans in the second episode of his seven-part PBS series, "The Blues." The installment, directed by Wim Wenders, is named for Johnson's "Soul of a Man," a song that links a trio of protagonists -- Johnson, Skip James and J.B. Lenoir -- as artists driven to create amid abject hardships. With wife Willie B. Harris' soprano sweetening Johnson's coarse bass falsetto on the 1930 recording, the duo demands an answer to the unanswerable: "I want somebody to tell me/Just what is the soul of a man."
An instinctive virtuoso
Beyond five recording dates from 1927-1930 that yielded 30 tracks, the singer remains a biographical question mark. Only one picture of him, seated at a piano holding a guitar with a tin cup for tips on its neck, has ever been found. A search on the Internet or a browse through the music section of libraries and bookstores reveals the slightest information on this musical pioneer, and almost all of it is wrong.
Months on the trail of the man whose music rang with an intensity previously unrecorded turn up a living daughter and a death certificate -- and little else. Finding witnesses who knew Johnson is about as easy as interviewing folks who lived through World War I. Many are dead or too old to remember.
Or, like Sam Faye Johnson Kelly, the only child of Blind Willie and Willie B. Harris, they're 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, 72. "But I was just a little girl when he went away."
And while the death certificate corrects some previously accepted misinformation (he was born in 1897 near Brenham, not 1902 in Marlin, and died in 1945, not 1949, in Beaumont), the document doesn't tell you how he lived from 1930, when his recording career ended, until his death. It doesn't tell you how many times he was married and how many kids he fathered. It doesn't tell you how he learned to play such a wicked bottleneck guitar or which Pentecostal preachers he modeled his singing voice after. It doesn't verify the widespread legend that Willie was blinded when a stepmother threw lye in his face at age 7 to avenge a beating from his father. The certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis as a contributing factor. But when it also lists blindness as a contributor, the coroner's thoroughness becomes suspect.
Unquestioned is the opinion that Johnson is one of the most influential guitarists in music history. "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. "He's the apogee." An instinctive virtuoso, Johnson made his guitar moan, slur and sing, often finishing lyrics for him, and throughout the years, Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ry Cooder, Duane Allman and many more have expressed a debt to the sightless visionary.
And yet, the 1993 double-disc "Complete Blind Willie Johnson" has sold only about 15,000 copies on Sony/Legacy. It's safe to say that more than half of those sales were to guitar players.
1930s Mississippi Delta blues man Robert Johnson grew into a full-blown rock icon in part because of the mysteries of his life and death, but Willie Johnson has not benefited from his enigmatic existence. Even though his guitar-playing inspired a host of Delta blues men, from Johnson and Son House to Muddy Waters, Blind Willie refused to sing the blues, that style of pre-war music preferred by collectors and historians. He sang only religious songs, which explains a big part of his relative obscurity. His gruff evangelical bellow and otherworldly guitar were designed to draw in milling mulling masses on street corners, not to charm casual roots rock fans decades later.
Not a single penny
When word got out late last year through the community of music historians and record collectors that Blind Willie had a daughter who was still living in Marlin, 28 miles east of Waco, there was a collective gasp of hope that new information would surface. Maybe there was a box with pictures, letters or gospel programs that would fill in the huge gaps. Maybe Willie B. Harris had told her daughter details about her father, like how he lost his sight and where he learned his songs.
The discovery of an heir also stirred the interest of musical estate managers, such as Steve LaVere of Mississippi's Delta Haze company, who visited Kelly in November. In his role managing the estate of Robert Johnson, LaVere has aggressively collected back royalties from Columbia Records and such performers as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. "It's all about getting the pennies to roll in your direction -- we're talking about eight cents a record (in songwriter royalties)," LaVere said. "Eventually, the pennies turn into dollars."
But when LaVere left Marlin to return to his offices in Greenwood, Miss., he didn't have a signed contract that would give him the right to represent the estate of Blind Willie Johnson. "I was a little miffed," he said. "I thought we had laid out the groundwork on the phone and would be able to sign a deal, but some people just don't know what they have, what it's worth, and they'd rather do nothing than feel like they might get cheated."
Kelly said she just didn't want to rush into anything. "You know, old people don't like to sign stuff right away," she said as she maneuvered her wheelchair through the cramped quarters of 817 Hunter St., where Blind Willie lived with Kelly's mother in the early '30s. It's a four-room box with a sagging roof and walls warped by the heat.
Kelly said that she's never received a penny from her father's music.
But first she has to fly the flag, said noted New York attorney William Krasilovsky, who wrote "This Business of Music," the industry bible. "You say, 'Here we are. We represent the heirs of Blind Willie Johnson.' " Until an estate is established, there's no place to send whatever royalties may be due.
"I guess I should hire someone to see about getting some money for the family," Kelly said. "I need to make a move here."
"Z'rontre!" Kelly called out to her great-grandson, her voice cutting through the loud cartoons watched in the living room by two kids laying on the floor. "Come here and get Mama that box of papers." A little boy bounded in from the bedroom and climbed up on a chair to reach a rectangular plastic box. "This boy's only three years old and he can do everything for me, even fetch me some water," said Kelly, who's stricken with arthritis and other ailments. "He's my legs."
She pulled out a few fragile documents, including a birth certificate which says that she was born June 23, 1931, to Willie Johnson, occupation listed as "musician," and a mother whose maiden name was Willie B. Hays.
Kelly said she remembers her father staying with her mother until she was about seven or eight years old. That would put him in Marlin until at least 1938. But two years after Kelly's birth, her mother had a daughter Dorothy with a man named Joe Henry, according to Kelly. Six years later came Earline, from another father. Kelly recalls that her parents had remained married even as Willie B. Harris was having kids with other men and Blind Willie was drifting from street corner to church to train station for months at a time.
"We was working people, see," said Kelly. "My mother understood that my father had to leave Marlin to make money. She worked seven days a week as a nurse. I'd say, 'Mama, please stay home today' and she'd say, 'But I gotta work' and I'd understand."
During the era in which Blind Willie recorded, artists didn't expect royalties. They took whatever the labels paid them, usually around $25 to $50 per record, and the music they recorded was considered work for hire. The labels claimed all rights. "They had just made a record," Columbia field recorder Frank Walker, who helmed Johnson's remarkably fruitful Dec. 3, 1927, session, said in an interview in the '60s. "To them that was the next best thing to being president of the United States."
Johnson's first 78 rpm -- "If I Had My Way" backed with "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time" (titled "Motherless Children" by Clapton) -- sold a remarkable 15,000 copies, even more than Bessie Smith's recordings of the day. By 1930, however, the Depression dried up demand for gritty country blues/gospel, and Blind Willie's recording career was history. But as was his nature, Johnson kept on the move, playing "from Maine to the Mobile Bay," according to what his touring mate Blind Willie McTell told Alan Lomax in a 1940s interview.
"People recalled hearing him at times over KTEM in Temple and on a Sunday-morning church service broadcast by KPLC in Lake Charles," said Houston-based music historian Mack McCormick. "He left memories in Corpus Christi during WWII when there was a fear about Nazi submarines prowling the Gulf of Mexico. Someone must have told him submarines often listened to radio stations to triangulate their position. He went on the air with new verses to one of his songs, probably 'God Moves on the Water' about the Titanic, offering grace to his audience, then followed with a dire warning to the crew of any listening U-boat with 'Can't Nobody Hide from God.' "
Blind Willie's music was revealed to a new generation of country blues enthusiasts (including Bob Dylan) with the 1952 release of the Harry Smith anthology "American Folk Music," which included Johnson's "John the Revelator." The "Blind Willie Johnson" album came out on Folkways in 1957, with a key detail wrong. Second wife Angeline Johnson, who was tracked down by music historian Samuel Charters in 1953, was credited with the backing vocals performed by first wife Harris.
This error was uncorrected until the mid-'70s, when a Dallas music collector named Dan Williams drove down to Marlin to see if he could find anyone who knew Blind Willie. "I approached a group of elderly black people near the town square and one of them said he was related to Blind Willie's ex-wife, the one who sang on his records, and I thought I was going to meet Angeline Johnson," Williams recalls. "Nobody knew anything about a Willie B. Harris."
After hearing Harris sing along to the Blind Willie records and talk about certain details of the recording sessions that only those present would know, Williams ascertained that she was, indeed, the background singer. "She talked about meeting Blind Willie McTell at the last session in Atlanta (April 20, 1930) and I did some research and found out that, sure enough, McTell recorded at the same studio the same day."
Charters made the correction, crediting Harris, in his notes to the 1993 boxed set, but repeated Angeline Johnson's contention that she married Blind Willie in Dallas in 1927. There is no record of such a marriage in Dallas County or in the county clerks offices of Falls, McLennan, Bell, Milam, Jefferson or Robertson counties. But then, neither is there evidence, besides Kelly's birth certificate listing her as legitimate, that Blind Willie and Willie B. were ever married.
Floating in space
Researching history about long dead blues men is fueled by random payoffs, much like slot machines and singles bars. You run your fingers down the pages of big, dusty books for hours and then you find a bit of information, a bit of new evidence, and it all becomes worth it.
But dozens of hours in search of details on the life of Blind Willie Johnson resulted in almost zero positive reinforcements. A five-hour drive to Beaumont yielded the slightest new info; a city directory shows that in 1944, a Rev. W.J. Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forest St. That's the address listed on Blind Willie's death certificate as his last residence.
Besides the entry on the death certificate, there is no evidence that Blind Willie Johnson is buried in Beaumont's "colored" Blanchette Cemetery, a seemingly untended field littered with broken tombstones and overrun with weeds and brush. If Johnson had a headstone, it's gone now. When the cemetery floods, a man who lives across the street said, sometimes wooden coffins can be seen floating away among the debris. There is no peaceful rest, no solitude for the ages, for the migrant musician.
His music, meanwhile, continues its journey to the galaxy's back yard.
Ry Cooder, who based his desolate soundtrack to "Paris, Texas" on "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)," described it as "The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music." On that Voyager 1 disc is hard evidence that we are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal, that we do indeed have souls that live long after we're buried.
(Follow links to original Sweetest Psychopath blogpostings/Wiki post for further informative links & listen/download)