For the first blog of 2012 (sorry it’s late kids, I’ve been cray cray busy this month) we are going to talk about blues. Well, we are going to talk about one specific Blues man, Blind Willie Johnson. I am sure some of you have heard of Blind Willie if only for the reason he was mentioned on an episode of West Wing. Others will know him from his music and the legacy he left behind. But I’m sure some of you have never heard of him at all. I’m going to fix that right now.
Blind Willie Johnson was born in Texas in 1902 (or so we think. Records are a little sketchy). Willie was not born blind but a tragic accident at the age of seven robbed him of his sight forever. It was some childhood illness or something of that nature. It was his stepmother who caused Willie’s blindness. You see my little blog loves, his stepmother was carrying on a dalliance with another man. Having an affair for those of you who need the vernacular. Bumping uglies with someone who was not her baby daddy for the folks who like it a little crude. Willie’s daddy caught her in the act. They pair fought and she tossed lye at her husband only to miss and hit Willie in the face. This permanently blinded him.
Willie found solace in music, gospel music to be precise. He sang gospel songs, accompanying himself on the guitar, for donations in the streets. He mainly worked in small towns and cities in Texas. As he matured his voice took on a rough, low baritone. He practically growled his songs. Even more so, and before, then people like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. A guy way ahead of his time was our Blind Willie. Willie recorded 30 songs over the course of 3 years, mainly recording in Atlanta and Dallas.
Despite what he could do vocally and on the guitar Blind Willie died in poverty. He died of a combination of malarial fever, with syphilis and pneumonia added to the mix. (This is what is listed on the death certificate but it is not known how true it is.) His house had burned down and Willie was living in the remnants on a wet bed, wrapped in newspapers instead of blankets. His wife at the time, Angeline, said she tried to take him to the hospital but they refused to admit him stating his blindness as the cause. Other sources report he was refused because he was black. Blind Willie Johnson died in 1945 at the age of 48.
His legacy goes on to this day. Many artists have covered his songs and claim him as an influence for their music. “If I had my way I’d tear the building down” was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. The White Stripes covered “John the Revelator” (One of my personal favorites truth be known) Artists from Led Zeppelin to Beck and Nina Simone have paid homage to Blind Willie by keeping his music alive.
What was it about Blind Willie Johnson that keeps resonating with the American People? Was it his story of a simple background of hardship? Is it the sadness of his childhood and tragic death? I think it is simply what he could achieve in his music. Such sweetness in the haunting potency of “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” which is only slide guitar and vocal moaning, to the rich growl of “Samson and Delilah.” Blind Willie conveyed emotions we have all felt at some point in our lives.
Let’s pass on the music he left and make sure Blind Willie is never forgotten.