Listening to Blind Willie Johnson (1902-1947)

I took a blues anthology CD out of the library the other day and as I was listening to it, Blind Willie Johnson started singing, “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying” (1928). I’d heard it before, but not recently, so it really struck me. His gruff, raspy voice is echoed at key moments by the high female voice of Willie B. Harris, while Johnson’s keening slide guitar work intensifies the song’s poignancy.

Johnson, Blind Willie with tin cupOne of the best visual representations of the kind of deep pain and high joy that the blues can create is a well-known statue by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1647–1652) is in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. This magnificent statue’s embodiment of spiritual experience has the fluidity of music.

Bernini - T. Teresa-detail 220 pixBlind Willie Johnson’s powerful blend of gospel and blues is hard to describe. Bernini points to what the experience is like, but you simply have to listen to the music. A large part of the appeal of music for me is that even when it uses words it is able to say the unsayable.

In his invaluable and detailed essay on Johnson, Jas Obrecht says he “created some of the most intensely moving records of the 20th century.” Johnson’s musical legacy consists of only 30 recordings on 78s made during the 1920s and ’30s. Obrecht writes: “A slide guitarist nonpareil, Johnson had an exquisite sense of timing and tone, using a pocketknife or ring slider to duplicate his vocal inflections or to produce an unforgettable phrase from a single strike of a string.” Both Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder are great admirers of Johnson’s work. Obrecht quotes Ry Cooder as calling Johnson’s instrumental “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” the “most transcendent piece in all American music.”

Obrecht also quotes Country Joe McDonald’s comment on the 1928 recordings with Willie B. Harris:  “Blind Willie Johnson with his wife was just unbelievable. You’re hearing a flash from the past, the tradition alive. Her singing has a modal plaintiveness that’s a line going back to West Africa and to Portugal and to the Moslem prayer chanting. It’s so spooky.”

Willie Johnson, Jr. was born on January 22, 1897 in Independence, Texas. “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying” was one of four songs Johnson recorded for Columbia in Dallas on December 5, 1928. Johnson died in Beaumont, Texas on September 18, 1945.

Anyone who loves the blues needs to have at least one CD by Blind Willie Johnson. I recommend Dark Was The Night (Columbia/Legacy, CK 65516), which contains 16 essential track with liner notes by Jas Obrecht. Or go all the way with The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, a two-CD set that includes all 30 recordings.

Here are the lyrics to “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying.”

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