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Monday, June 18, 2012

Blind Willie Johnson: The Complete Blind Willie Johnson


BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON: THE COMPLETE BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON (1927-1931; 1993)

1) I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole; 2) Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed; 3) It's Nobody's Fault But Mine; 4) Mother's Children Have A Hard Time; 5) Dark Was The Night - Cold Was The Ground; 6) If I Had My Way I'd Tear The Building Down; 7) I'm Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge; 8) Jesus Is Coming Soon; 9) Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying; 10) Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning; 11) Let Your Light Shine On Me; 12) God Don't Never Change; 13) Bye And Bye I'm Goin' To See The King; 14) Sweeter As The Years Roll By; 15) You'll Need Some­body On Your Bond; 16) When The War Was On; 17) Praise God I'm Satisfied; 18) Take Your Burden To The Lord And Leave It There; 19) Take Your Stand; 20) God Moves On The Water; 21) Can't Nobody Hide From God; 22) If It Had Not Been For Jesus; 23) Go To Me With That Land; 24) The Rain Don't Fall On Me; 25) Trouble Will Soon Be Over; 26) The Soul Of A Man; 27) Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right; 28) Church, I'm Fully Saved To-Day; 29) John The Revelator; 30) You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond.

I do not generally insist on pushing pre-war blues on people. It takes a long time and a lot of ef­fort to get paid off. Poor sound quality, monotonous sequences of interchangeable compositions, ascetic arrangements — we'll just have to accept that this stuff is «not for everybody», and that most listeners will simply be paying their respects by throwing on a Charlie Patton or a Leadbelly record. We all suspect that Leadbelly «felt» ʽMidnight Specialʼ much more intensely than John Fogerty (if only because the latter never did actual time, unlike the former), but Leadbelly's ori­ginal gathers 200,000 views on Youtube while CCR's versions count millions, and that's the way it's going to stay, and nothing's gonna change that fact.

But there are certain moments when the general rule has to be forfeited, and this is one of them. Everybody with even a passing interest in XXth century popular music must know about Blind Willie Johnson, one of the most unique — and mysterious — musical figures of that century. And everyone must own at least one single-CD collection of his greatest songs (such as Dark Was The Night), although, considering that his entire legacy consists of just thirty sides recorded over a three-year period, it might be more productive to go straight away for Columbia's 2-CD Com­plete package. Yes, some of these thirty songs do sound the same. No, this is not supposed to tire out the listener. Yes, this is terrifying genius on the prowl. No, I'm being serious.

If you know your «classic rock» well enough, you will probably recognize a good third of the titles straight away — Blind Willie was covered quite extensively. Bob Dylan liked him for his grizzled earthiness. Eric Clapton admired him for his delicate soulfulness. Led Zeppelin respected him for his desperate madness. Nick Cave fancied him for his apocalyptic attitude. Ry Coo­der worshipped him for his transcendental mysticism. And Peter, Paul and Mary just dug him beca­use the songs were catchy and all.

So what is the secret of Blind Willie's popularity? In his short lifetime, he was never a massive commercial presence, and post-mortem, he never succeeded in becoming a «legend» of Robert Johnson's caliber, having steadily remained «the musician's musician». Most probably, this is just because the man was too weird for his own time, too far ahead of it for the average listener to overcome the confusion and understand what it is really all about.

The first thing people will tell you is that Blind Willie was a masterful slide player. According to legend, he preferred playing with a knife on the strings rather than the proverbial «bottleneck», but this is hard to verify by simply listening to the records. He did play a lot of slide guitar, much more so than the average picking bluesman from the same time — and it was hardly a coincide­nce that most of his material was thematically in the «gospel blues» sub-genre: of all the nume­rous particular proofs that properly played slide guitar is the champion of Soul in Sound, few ma­nage to be as convincing as Blind Willie Johnson's.

The second thing is, of course, Blind Willie's voice. He had a natural tenor, which can be heard on a handful of these songs, but most of the time he would intentionally lower it to a gravelly «false bass», which sounded as if the guitar strings were not the only thing across which he was sliding that knife. Simply put, the man was there before Tom Waits, before Captain Beefheart, before Howlin' Wolf, even before Charlie Patton — the first well-known example of an artist playing hell with his voice for a nice little horrorshow effect.

Of course, Blind Willie did not invent that effect. It all goes back to apocalyptically minded old black preachers invoking the Old Testamental spirits of Moses and the Prophets. But he was one of the first, if not the first, performer to put it on record, singlehandedly responsible for creating the «dark gospel blues» style. And, as far as I know, he still remains the single best representative of that style, because gospel and blues soon went their own ways, with blues inheriting most of the darkness and gospel turning to a more optimistic outlook on things, for good reason — if all they sang in church was Blind Willie Johnson material, Satanists would eventually start joining the Church instead of trying to burn it down.

However, Johnson's most popular song is ʽDark Was The Night, Cold Was The Groundʼ, where there is very little singing as such — mostly just a series of wordless sighs and moans. Techni­cally, it's an impressionistic illustration of the sufferings of Jesus, but in retrospect, it is probably the first «mood piece» ever put on record in popular music history: call it «proto-ambient», if you like, created with just a series of isolated slide licks that never come together in a rhythmic whole. Sure can't tap your feet to that stuff. Just feel lonely and lost in space.

His second most popular song is probably ʽNobody's Fault But Mineʼ, built upon a magnificent swirling slide riff, later burnt down to the ground and reconstructed from the ashes by Led Zep­pelin on Presence. Without the slide guitar, it would simply be one more preachy message: "If I don't read it my soul be lost, nobody's fault but mine". With the slide, you don't even pay much attention to the lyrics — in fact, Blind Willie was also one of the first people to introduce the pra­ctice of leaving certain vocal lines unfinished and letting the guitar finish the message instead. Of course, the gravelly voice, shredding your ear nerves, and the thin wail of the slide sound nothing like each other. He's the man, and the slide is his woman, and they're both unhappy in their own way, and... (this should be followed by one of those key Marxist-tinged phrases about the music reflecting the hundreds of years of poor underdogs and black slaves suffering, but this review al­ready looks stupid enough without having to run even more stuff into the ground).

Speaking of women, on about a third of these numbers Willie is accompanied by his wife, Willie B. Harris, who normally stands a little farther away from the mike and provides «echoing» vocals (ʽJohn The Revelatorʼ, etc.). This could be seen as a softening, «commercializing» factor, but in reality, the contrast between her «normal» backup and Johnson's earthy growl is sometimes even weirder than his solo numbers — on ʽChurch, I'm Fully Saved To-Dayʼ it seems as if their parts were overdubbed from two different performances, so dissimilar are the attitudes: the quiet, calm, moderately pretty delivery of the wife against the animal growling of the husband.

On the other hand, Willie was capable of tenderness — on ʽLet Your Light Shine On Meʼ, he al­ternates tense growling with a delicate croon, and the self-imposed laryngitis is not in evidence on ʽBye And Bye I'm Goin' To See The Kingʼ, which, incidentally, also features some of his most technically complex slide runs. This does not have any philosophical implications — it only goes to show that the sequence of thirty seconds is not as stubbornly monotonous as it could be. There are different tempos, different keys, different vocal modulations, a little bit of ambience, Willie Harris' support or lack thereof, songs you know from later covers, songs you don't know from later covers, in short, you won't be bored unless you really want to.

The only thing that the progressive listener has to bear with is that all of the songs, indeed, are of a gospel nature. Blind Willie meant it seriously and never succumbed to the pleasures of singing about black snakes, log cabins, and ya-yas instead of doing «the right thing». But who cares? In a way, this collection is the acoustic blues equivalent of Black Sabbath's Master Of Reality: Chris­tian songs delivered in a manner that is decidedly frightening and unsettling for most good Chris­tians. Whoever claimed that Robert Johnson's music sounded «dangerous»? There is hardly a moment more dangerous-sounding in Depression-era music than Blind Willie going "We done told you, God done warned you, Jesus comin' soon". This here guy doesn't joke around with his Apocalypse, he's earnestly waiting for it to spring out from behind the corner.

Total thumbs up — and repeat: this is one of the three or four most important pre-war compila­tions that your collection might be missing. In a way, it even sounds surprisingly modern: as I said, Blind Willie was so far ahead of his time that, had they frozen him up before his death from malaria in 1945, he'd have fit in very well inside today's lo-fi movement. Any lo-fi aficionados out there? You don't know what you're missing.

Check Out "The Complete Blind Willie Johnson" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Complete Blind Willie Johnson" (MP3) on Amazon

8 comments:

  1. Great review, George (as always). And, yes, Blind Willie definitely stands in a league of his own compared to his contemporaries. Who else has a blues composition that could be covered by the Kronos Quartet (seek it out on the modern artists' compilation bearing the title Dark Was The Night Cold Was The Ground)? You're right, he would fit right in today.

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  2. I really appreciate your review, George. I've been looking forward to your thoughts on BWJ, who I first heard on another Roots N Blues comp, Preachin' the Gospel. It was "I'm Gonna Run to the City of Refuge," and it was one of his standard-tuned strumming blues with only one chord change in the whole thing. But it was that VOICE that freaked me out. I had never heard gospel sung with such horrific, raspy bellowing before. A few years later I appropriated a collection similar to this that included all his sides and experienced the same shock and awe you described. Hearing "Cold was the ground", a reinterpretation of a congregational chant, takes me right outside Jesus' tomb, within eyeshot of the cold stone, and you can feel the cold dark Mideastern air. "God Moves on the Water" turns Titanic into a frantic sermon against the pride of mankind in his machines. And "John the Revelator" with Willie B. in the background chanting in response to Willie J.'s apocalyptic recital of the book of Revelation burns with fire and passion.

    Of course, there's the playing, which is on a whole other level of ecstasy. I agree with the assertion that he used knives to slide those notes out. You can actually hear the metal-on-metal scraping, and while it strains the notes a bit, in the end, he whips through them so fast and expressively that it doesn't diminish the effect: that hot, dusty Texas spirit blowing through the brush. Any rock band with half a spine (not easy to find these days, i'm afraid) could take any of these songs and update it for modern times, and not miss a beat. He has that far ahead of the curve.

    One more thing: I'm gonna hafta listen to Masters of Reality and decide if indeed it's "Chris­tian songs delivered in a manner that is decidedly frightening and unsettling for most good Chris­tians." Not sure where Sweet Leaf falls into that category, but hey, let's give it a shot. Thanks again, you've made my day, GS.

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  3. George, there's a misprint, it should read Jefferson.

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  4. I have been waiting for your review on this guy since you started with all the "Blind" bluesmen. I knew you were going to "get" him.

    I like how he sometimes finishes lines with the guitar. For one, it usually demonstrates his skill. For two, it always has the effect of suggesting but not stating the lyrics - on close analysis the rhyme scheme and the context easily suggest the real lyrics but on a gut level he can manage to suggest quite ominous things.

    And this is, among other things, what makes a blind, semi-illiterate itinerant singer cum preacher earn a status as one of the great artists and poets of his time.

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  5. I agree, the "call and response" with between Willie and the guitar is brilliant. On "God Moves on the water" he never actually sings the words "on the water" throughout the song. Just listening to it today, it really spoke to me--the song and the guitar.

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  6. Thanks. What other two or three documents? :)

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  7. Last blind artist? No Blind Guardian section, I guess?

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  8. You forgot Blind Teddy Darby, Blind Roosevelt Graves, and Blind Gary Davis. Others, like Blind Joe Reynolds and Blind Percy and his Blind Band didn't record an albums worth of stuff.

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