March 18, 2011 by gadaya
Maybe the greatest “guitar evangelist” of all time, Blind Willie Johnson remains quite a mysterious figure, with only a few biographical hints to help us understand his life and his music.Like many blind african-american in the 1920’s and 1930’s, music was one way to scratch a living, singing on street corners and maybe, if you had a special talent and a little luck, on a recording studio for a phonograph company. In fact, we can find many examples of Blues guitar players from this era who were blind, played on the streets and had many religious songs in their repertoire: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell and Reverend Gary Davis being the most well known. We don’t know if Blind Willie Johnson played secular songs as well, as all of his 30 recordings are religious pieces and even if his records sold well during his time, he had to rely on busking throughout all of his life to make a living. As a performer, he remains one of the most intense singer and guitar player ever recorded, influencing many others during his lifetime and ever since. His superb slide guitar playing and his powerful harsh voice are the most distinctive elements of his musicianship but he could also play some intricate guitar bass runs and sing with a warm tenor on some sides.
-For elements of his biography, there are already many pages on the web you can look out. Here are a few interesting links:
-Blind Willie Johnson’s complete recordings were issued on a double-cd by Columbia-Sony and there is an excellent compilation of his best sides on Yazoo Records.
-I choosed to share with you his last session, 10 sides (which includes the Anthology selection “John The Revelator”), recorded on April 20, 1930 in Atlanta. He is accompanied by his first wife, Willie B. Harris who takes the lead on some tracks. During this session, Johnson uses mostly his guitar in regular tuning, played with a heavy thumb, returning only for the last track to his more celebrated slide playing. One song here seems to come from the white tradition (“If it had not been for Jesus”) and some are among his best performances (“The rain don’t fall on me”, “The Soul of a man” “John The Revelator”).
2.If It had not been for Jesus
3.Go to me with that land
4.The rain don’t fall on me
5.Trouble will soon be over
6.The soul of a man
7.Everybody ought to treat a stranger right
8.Church I’m fully saved today
9.John The Revelator
10.You’re gonna need somebody on your bond
John The Revelator (The Variations)
“John The Revelator” is a classic “call and response” african-american song about John of Patmos, the author of the “Book of Revelation”, the final book in the “New Testament” corpus. Blind Willie Johnson’s version seems to be the most influential and have been “covered” many times by Blues and Rock artists. I have compiled some of my favorite versions, which includes The Golden Gate Quartet, Son House, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, some contemporary bands like Frankenpine and Sacred Shakers,The Holy Modal Rounders (singing the “New John The Revelator”!) and a gospel a-capella choir recorded by Alan Lomax… Enjoy!
2.Belleville A-Capella Choir (From “Southern Journey vol.8:Velvet Voices”)
3.New Tradition (From “Daddy on his knees”)
4.Ron Campbell (From “A skinny old white man sings the Blues”)
5.The Sacred Shakers (From “The Sacred Shakers”)
6.Kirk Withrow (From “Hogtie the devil”)
7.Son House (From “The Delta Blues of Son House”)
8.Ethel Caffie-Austin (From “The Harry Smith Connection: A live tribute to the Anthology”)
9.Holy Modal Rounders (From “Too much fun”)
10.Frankenpine (From “The Crooked Mountain”)
11.The Dirty Dozen Brass Band (From “Funeral for a friend”)
12.The Spiritual Four Quartet (From “Field Recordings vol.14”)
(Click on Harry Smith to download all the mp3 tracks from this post)