Monday, August 13, 2012

The Texas Blues #4 – Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground – Blind Willie Johnson

Happy Monday, friends. We’re here with a new edition of the Monday Morning Blues, & as we’ve been doing lately, we’re taking a trip to the Lone Star state for some Texas Blues.

 “The blues” covers such a diverse range of music; indeed, it’s used as a catch-all phrase for much of early 20th century African American music, ranging stylistically from the east coast ragtime-influenced stylings of Blind Blake to the deep south one-chord modal music of King Solomon Hill; from the banjo & jug driven sound of Cannon’s Jug Stompers to the heavy slide sound of Son House & others in the Mississippi Delta region. In addition, we tend to categorize African American sacred music from this time period in with the blues, so that for instance Reverend Gary Davis is found in the blues music racks, & Blind Willie McTell’s “I Got to Cross the River Jordan” is generally packaged right along side “Mama Tain’t Long fore Day” or “Brokedown Engine Blues.” Thus, one of the greatest of the early gospel singers & musicians, Blind Willie Johnson from either Brenham or Temple, Texas, is generally classified as a “blues” musician, tho his repertoire, at least based on the 30 sides he recorded between 1927 & circa 1930, consisted solely of spiritual or gospel songs.
 Johnson’s biography, insofar as it’s known to us, is a harsh tale of a hard life. Apparently blinded at age seven in an incident of appalling child abuse, he mostly made his way in the world as a street singer & preacher. He settled in Beaumont, Texas & sang & preached there (presumably there was no actual distinction between his singing & his preaching.) Johnson was married to Willie B. Harris, who sang on some of his records, & may later have been married to Angeline Johnson; but no marriage licenses have ever been discovered. Not too much should be made of this fact, since official record-keeping on the southern African-American population was not very painstaking in the first part of the 20th century.

ohnson’s home in Beaumont burned in 1945, & because he was a pauper, he continued to live in the burned-out house until he died from malarial fever later that year at age 48. Angeline Johnson tried to bring him to a hospital, but he was refused admission—reports vary as to whether this refusal was because he was black or because he was blind.Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is a song about the Crucifixion. Johnson hums & moans, while playing some of the most beautiful slide guitar you will ever hear. The song is played in open D, & it’s reported that Johnson used a knife as the slide—not an uncommon practice in those times. In 1977, Johnson’s 1927 Columbia recording of the song was chosen as one of 27 pieces of music (along with various natural sounds) to be placed on a recording on the Voyager Golden Record to be sent on the Voyager spacecrafts into deep space.  Carl Sagan, who was among those who chose the selections, said “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was selected because "Johnson's song concerns a situation he faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight."

The song also served as the basis for Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to Wim Wender’s film, Paris, Texas. Cooder has called this "the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music."

A special piece of music & a transcendent performance indeed.


All images link to their source
Image of Blind Willie Johnson is from According to Wikipedia, which uses a cropped version of this image, the photograph is in the public domain
Image of the 1927 Columbia "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" record is from Wikipedia. They claim fair use
Image of the Voyager Golden Record is from Wikipedia. This NASA image is in the public domain


  1. Wow! That really is something else!

  2. You think his death is sad, read about how he was blinded......

    1. Hi Joe: Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I'm aware of that story too, tho I only referred to it obliquely in the post. Appreciate your comment!


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