Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
God Don’t Never Change – The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson
Featuring: Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Cowboy Junkies, Blind Boys Of Alabama, Sinead O’Connor, Luther Dickinson w/ The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, Maria McKee, Rickie Lee Jones
By Mark Baier
To say that Blind Willie Johnson is enigmatic is a bit of an understatement. His influence on modern music is almost without equal, yet he’s a character who’s oblique and mysterious, virtually unknown by the legions who’ve been touched by his musical and spiritual grace. Indeed grace is the word to best describe his musical canon; one that venerates and stands in awe of the Almighty while acting as His beacon of salvation should the listener pay heed to the haunting warning. With God Don’t Ever Change, The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson, Alligator Records and producer Jeffery Gaskill insure that his divine blessings are not to be forgotten. Featuring a select assembly of artists, Johnsons spirit and breath can be heard throughout this deeply moving collection, one which tranfixes the listener in the present while luring them deep into the murky myth of a blind street preacher from Texas named Willie Johnson.
While it’s said that what we don’t know about Blind Willie Johnson could sink the Titanic, recent scholarship has unearthed a meager detail or two. Born in Pendleton, TX in 1897, Johnson grew up in nearby Marlin, TX. This area between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers, southeast of Dallas, and north of Houston proved to be a very fertile ground for blues artists. In addition to Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Frankie Lee Simms all hail from the area (must be something in the water). Legend has it that his stepmother, in a fit of revenge for a beating she endured from Johnson’s father, blinded the young Willie with lye. The story was related by his widow Angeline Johnson in 1955, “She throwed lye water in Willie’s face and put his eyes out.” (Shortly afterward, Willie’s father remarried.)
Willie periodically can be traced traveling throughout the area, preaching the gospel and playing guitar with a strange bottleneck style. Mance Lipscomb recalls seeing him as early as 1916 in front of Tex’s Radio Shop in Navasota. Lipscomb: “He just had people from here to the highway. Jes’ hunnunds a people standing right on the streets. White and black, old colored folks and young ones as well. All listenin’ at his voice.” It’s said that he played at whorehouses and medicine shows and sometimes traveled with another blind preacher, riding the web of train lines that connected the small towns that litter south Texas. His reputation was enough to pique the interest of Columbia Records’ Frank B. Walker and his first recordings were made in December 1927. These seminal recordings were among the very first to feature slide guitar in a blues or gospel context. Johnson recorded six selections at this initial session including “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time” and the masterpiece “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground”. Obviously, his playing and singing was fully formed by this time, and Walker must have been stunned by Johnson's mastery and impact. It’s worth noting that Walker is renowned in music legend for having discovered Bessie Smith in 1923 and none other than Hank Williams in 1947. It’s no coincidence that he was also the man who also discovered Blind Willie Johnson.
Blind Willie Johnson made his final recordings in 1930, and when Tom Waits kicks off the tribute CD with “The Soul of A Man,” it’s as if time hasn’t moved a moment since. Anyone familiar with Waits will instantly recognize his characteristic smoky delivery and everyone familiar with Blind Willie Johnson will instantly recognize it as his! Such is the depth of Waits’ understanding and familiarity with the Johnson gospel. It’s also an indication of Johnson’s pure transcendence, the extent with which he still owns all of these songs. It really doesn’t matter which selection is being auditioned, the heart of Blind Willie Johnson is so conspicuous that his ghost is illuminated in clear sight. In addition to Waits, Lucinda Williams, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Cowboy Junkies, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Sinead O’Connor, Luther Dickenson, Maria McKee and Rickie Lee Jones all weigh in, and though all of the interpretations are individual and distinctive, the specter of Blind Willie Johnson is everpresent, almost rendering the individual performer irrelevant.
When Tedeschi and Trucks perform “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning,” the echo of Blind Willie is inescapable, his breath whispers on every note and phrase, there’s no way that they could’ve distanced themselves from it. Cowboy Junkies’ interpretation of “Jesus Is Coming Soon” goes as far as sampling Blind Willie’s original vocal, providing a powerful and haunting reminder of whose name is on the CD cover. There’s a seriousness and focus to these performances, none feel loose or off the cuff, reverence and awe loom over every track. Luther Dickenson takes on “Bye And Bye I’m Going To See The King” with an authenticity reserved only for those with divine authority to offer God’s salvation.
Tom Waits is afforded two selections and they’re both powerhouses. Wait’s own vocal delivery, graveled and torn, mimics Blind Willie’s to a “T”, and make his selections, “The Soul Of A Man” and the epic “John The ‘Revelator” among the most transfixing. Lucinda Williams also takes two selections and they’re among the best known songs in Willies work, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “God Don’t Never Change”. Slide guitar is obviously prominent in the original recordings, and Lucinda’s interpretations take full advantage of that. Her guitarist Doug Pettibone is simply ethereal, weaving heavenly lines around Lucinda’s tortured vocals. Of all the selections, Waits and Lucinda are the only ones that actually resemble that particular artist; Waits because he always sounds like Blind Willie Johnson, and Lucinda because there’s no escaping her unique twang and delivery. The Blind Boys Of Alabama provide the most obvious departure from Blind Willie’s original style. Both are gospel artists, and the Blind Boys Of Alabama swagger in the classic choral form in glorious five-part harmony. In a recent interview, the Blind Boys’ Jimmy Carter confided that “Mother’s Children” was known to them as a Golden Gate Quartet hymn; they had never heard Johnson’s original.
The other artists sound nothing like their expectation. No one would ever suspect it’s Sinead O’Connor singing the lovely “Trouble Will Soon Be Over,” and the same can be said of Maria McKee’s take on “Let Your Light Shine On Me”. The latter is perhaps the CD’s most powerful track – McKee sings with gusto and plays all the instruments -- but it illustrates perfectly how the singer is almost irrelevant; it’s Blind Willie’s song that’s the star.
However, the final selection is the outright prize; Rickie Lee Jones performs Johnson’s magnum opus, “Dark Was The Night – Cold Was The Ground”. It’s generally considered to be the finest, most exceptional slide guitar piece of all time, so highly regarded that none other than Ry Cooder called it “the most transcendent piece of music ever performed”. Blind Willie’s classic version is purely instrumental, with a few well-placed moans and crying pleas interspersed throughout, but Rickie Lee’s version is a reading of the 1792 hymn that was the inspiration for BWJ. Who knew that story? Turns out that “Dark Was The Night” was derived from an old English hymn that was routinely taught to African American slaves by English missionaries in the 19th century, and it got passed down until Blind Willie Johnson transformed it. The hymn’s lyrics concern themselves with Jesus’ arrest and subsequent suffering at Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion. Rickie Lee’s musical archeology is amazing, and the song, heard in its original form perhaps for the first time in a century, is almighty in its impact. It’s a strange tormented song and the performance is all that as well. Hearing it for the first time, after a lifetime of understanding BWJ’s version is monumental and incredibly moving.
It’s very heavy stuff and his message of the promise of God’s kingdom and His wrath on earth are as powerful now as they were 100 years ago. Johnson was one of the few pre-war blues artists that never recorded a secular song, saving his talent for preaching the grace of God. Curiously, and further fueling the mythology, the recording log for his penultimate Columbia session, in Dec 1928, lists two sides by a mysterious artist called “Blind Texas Marlin”. It’s hard to believe that Blind Texas Marlin wasn’t Blind Willie Johnson, but we’ll never know; Columbia destroyed Blind Willie’s masters long long ago and along with it a huge chunk of history.
After his final recordings in December 1930, reports of Blind Willie are few and far between. There’s a newspaper article advertising a performance in Shiner, Texas at the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in October 1933 for 10 cents a seat. He must have had hundreds of this type of gig throughout his life. Johnson was also singled out in a report from a performance in 1938 at New York’s storied Hippodrome that had the audience becoming “deathlike quiet” as he performed “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”. Interestingly, it appears that his touring partner at the time was none other than Blind Willie McTell and that they traveled “from Maine to Mobile” according to McTell. Perhaps additional evidence of his life will be found, hidden in small town newspapers archived in a library basement somewhere, but by 1945 he was gone from this world, cause of death reported to be either malarial fever, pneumonia or syphilis. Buried at the African American Blanchard cemetery in Beaumont, TX, it’s unclear whether his unmarked grave even exists any longer thanks to flooding over the years. There are numerous reports of coffins floating off never to be seen again. God moves on the water. He also floats through outer space. In 2013, when the Voyager I spacecraft left the solar system and entered interstellar space, it carried Blind Willie Johnson along with it. Indeed, etched into it’s 24K gold “record” is a recording of Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night”. Everlasting life was what Blind Willie Johnson preached when he was inhabiting this world. His astounding musical gift, as represented by this amazing collection, has insured that he has attained just that, a life and legacy that spans the cosmos, closer to God than he ever realized.
The larger than life persona of Blind Willie Johnson demands that any tribute CD step up and deliver the goods. Producer Jefferey Gaskill has done that and more. The songs alone are enough to satisfy the most finicky aficionado, but thanks to the first class liner notes, the listener is also awarded with a fascinating biography of Blind Willie Johnson. Michael Corcoran’s essay is easily the most thorough and well crafted account of his life and the mysteries surrounding it that has ever been written. Highest commendation to him and to Jefferey Gaskill for providing such an important piece of Blues scholarship in this collection. Lastly, Bruce Iglauer gets a special shout out for making God Don’t Never Change the highest quality product imaginable. It’s obvious that no expense was spared in the assembly of this CD, one that venerates Blind Willie Johnson the man, and his music. 5 stars.