Sandy Brown Jazz

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On A Night Like This, The Story Is Told ...

Blind Willie Johnson


Blind Willie Johnson


(In 1927) 'Columbia took a field unit to Dallas and Memphis and recorded two of the great religious singers of the South: Whasington Phillips, who was noted for playing a curious instrument called the dulceola, and a singer much revered by blues collectors, Blind Willie Johnson.

Willie was a Texas farm boy, blinded at seven by his stepmother during a fight with his father. With few options other than to beg for a living, he became kind of a religious busker, standing in the streets of Marlin, Hearn and Dallas with his tin cup tied to the neck of a battered guitar. In 1927 the tall, gangling twenty-five year old with a thin moustache married Angeline, who taught him many of the songs he became famous for. Most of them came from old songbooks she kept in a trunk in the back of their house, like the Redeemer's Praise, For Sunday School, Church And Family by T.C. Okane, published in 1881.


Here is a video with Blind Willie Johnson singing Trouble Will Soon Be Over. (It's not Willie in the video but a recreation for a section of one of the blues documentaries produced by Martin Scorsese).




Blind Willie Johnson's records - thirty in all - are intense and moving testimonies sung mostly in a tortured, rasping voice over his astonishing guitar style, often swapping their functions at the end of a line for dramatic effect. The first record, issued in the last week of January 1928, was I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole and Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed, advertised by Columbia as 'The new sensation in the singing of sacred songs - and what guitar accompaniment!'

The success of the records made little difference to Willie's life-style. He never got more than a few dollars from the company and he remained a street beggar all his life. Even in the late 1940s, when his name had become a legend among sophisticated jazz collectors, he was still living in obscurity down in rural Texas.

After putting out a fire in his house one night in 1949, Angeline lay newspapers over the wet bedding and they were both soaked and cold by the morning. Standing out in the winter winds the next day, singing to earn a little money, Willie got sick and within a few days was dying of pneumonia. When Angeline took him to hospital he wasn't admitted. "They wouldn't accept him. He'd be living today if they'd accepted him. They wouldn't accept him because he was blind. Blind folks has a hard time ....".

From Black Gospel by Viv Broughton


But that's not the end of Blind Willie Johnson's story. In 1977 perhaps Willie's most famous song Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, was chosen to be included in a disc sent into space on the Voyager 1 space probe - here is a video documentary about Johnson, his guitar style and Dark Was The Night. (The video is broken by an advertisement half way through and there is a plug for another channel at the end, but ignoring those, the video is still worth watching).





Voyager Spece Disc

Voyager space disc



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Visit some of our other The Story Is Told pages:

Behind The Chorus Line
Censoring Ellington
Sidney Bechet Coming Of Age
Mingus Moving On

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