Johnson, Blind Willie (c.1900-1947)
Johnson, Blind Willie (c.1900-1947)
Blind Willie Johnson was an itinerant Texas street singer who made his last record in 1930 and died in poverty. Yet such was the force and individuality of his guitar playing and singing that all thirty of the gospel songs he recorded during his brief professional career are easily available today. His versions of "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down," "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," and "Bye and Bye I'm Going to See the King" are now considered classics and have attracted admirers in many fields of popular music.
Johnson dropped back into obscurity after his fifth and final recording session for Columbia Records in the spring of 1930 and for many years his strong, highly personal renditions of gospel songs could be heard only on bootleg records. But eventually, through the efforts of jazz historians like Samuel Charters, more and more people became aware of his work. Eventually Columbia reissued Johnson's entire output in both cassette and CD formats.
An intensely religious man, Johnson nevertheless utilized many of the techniques of the rowdy, secular blues in his performances. On most of his recordings he'd shift from his normal tenor to a gruff, growling bass and his slide guitar playing, done with the blade of a pocket knife, was harsh, intense, and impressive. "He had few equals as a slide guitarist," said Francis Davis in The History of the Blues. Although Johnson's faith underlies all of his performances, there's a grimness to many of his songs. Many are of such stark intensity that one can imagine his causing his sidewalk listeners' hair to stand on end.
Johnson was not born blind, but lost his sight as a child after his angry stepmother threw lye in his face. He eventually took to the streets of his native Marlin, Texas, and sang on corners, begging with a tin cup. He played in other Texas towns and eventually in neighboring states. It is uncertain who discovered him and persuaded him to record for Columbia. The company had a fairly ambitious program of issuing what were then called race records, employing scouts to work throughout the South. Blind Willie Johnson cut his first six 78-rpm sides in a makeshift studio in Dallas in early December of 1927. According to Charters, the first record, issued on Columbia's 140000 Race series, sold extremely well—over 15,000 copies, better than the popular Bessie Smith was doing—and Johnson from the start "was one of the strongest selling artists in the Columbia series."
Only one picture of Johnson is known to exist. It comes from a small ad that was run in black newspapers to promote the first record. "I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole" appeared on one side, "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" on the other. The company assured potential buyers that Blind Willie Johnson "sings sacred selections in a way that you have never heard before."
In December of 1928 Johnson cut four more sides, again in Dallas. This time a woman named Willie B. Harris, whom Charters says was Johnson's first wife, recorded as a sort of backup singer. It was another year before Johnson, accompanied by a different woman singer, recorded again. These third and fourth sessions took place in New Orleans in a studio set up above Werlein's Music Store, on the French Quarter side of Canal Street. The last session was in Atlanta, where Blind Willie Johnson, again working with Harris, recorded ten songs.
The Depression ended his recording career, as it did that of many other folk artists. Johnson, with a new wife, continued his wanderings, singing and begging on street corners in Texas and Louisiana. They eventually settled in Beaumont, Texas, and he died there of pneumonia in 1947. He'd slept in their shack after a fire had gutted it and the dampness caused his sickness. Many years later Charters tracked down his widow and when he asked her if she'd brought her sick husband to a hospital, she answered that she had but "they wouldn't accept him."
Charters, Samuel. Liner notes for The Complete Blind Willie Johnson. New York, Sony Music Entertainment, 1993.
Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues. New York, Hyperion, 1995.