Blind Willie Johnson - The Tragedy Of A Texas Legend
"Blind" Willie Johnson is one of the most revered, respected, and recorded artists in Texas music history. While his own recording did not bring fame, money, or respect, in death he has become one of the essential prototypes of Texas musicians. His recordings have been recorded over the years by numerous artists including: Son House, Led Zeppelin, Beck, and the White Stripes among others.
Willie Johnson was born into a very poor family sometime in 1902. It is unknown whether he was born in Marlin or Temple, even during his own lifetime. Johnson's early boyhood years were spent in Temple, Texas, where is mother died when he was very young. His father remarried sometime later. At the age of five he pronounced to his father that he wanted to become a preacher. Then, he built himself a cigar box guitar and began learning to play the instrument. Young Willie became known for his skills playing the guitar even before he reached the age of seven, at which time a terrible tragedy occurred.
Reportedly, young Willie was at home when his father learned that his stepmother had been cheating on him. Upon returning home he beat her. In self-defense Willies' step mother took a handful of lye and threw it at Willie's father. The lye missed his father, but landed in Young Willie's eyes. Another recounting of the tale said that his step mother intentionally blinded the child after the fight in revenge. Either way, from that day Willie Johnson never saw again.
Johnson, being now disabled, had little prospect in life. So, he decided to play music for money, and quickly put away his cigar box guitar for a 12-string acoustic.
Every day young Willie would be taken to various city streets where his father would leave him to play music for tips. There "Blind" Willie, as he was coming to be called, honed his skills, producing one of the most powerful voices in history.
Legends has it that Blind Willie nearly caused a riot in front of the Government Office Building. New Orleans when he gave a powerful rendition of "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down", a song about Samson and Delilah.
Another legend involving Blind Willie is that he played slide and bottleneck guitar with a pocket knife. It is unknown whether this is true, but many sources say that he did so on occasion.
At 25, Blind Willie married the sister of Blues guitarist L.C. Robinson, Angelina Johnson. He would go on to sing in a number of his recordings for Columbia circa 1927 to 1930. In those years he recorded only 30 original songs. It is not known how Johnson came to be recorded by Columbia, but it is known that the majority of his recordings were made in Dallas.
When the depression hit, the already poor Johnson continued preaching and singing in the streets of Beaumont to any crowd anywhere. He continued to do so until 1945, when his home burned to the ground. With nowhere for him to go, homeless and Blond Johnson slept in the charred ruins of his home on a soaking wet mattress that his wife made up for him.
Two weeks later Blind Willie died of pneumonia, after being denied hospital treatment, not because he was black, but because he was blind.
Blind Willies' music was rediscovered in the 1960's. The Grateful Dead covered "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down", which they re-titled "Samson and Delilah". The song was a staple of Grateful Dead shows which preserved Blind Willies legacy.
The most famous and moving song credited to Blind Willie is the immortal, "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground", which describes the crucifixion of Jesus.
In 1977, the Voyager spacecraft and launched into space. Among the other functions of the Voyager was a gramophone and a golden record, and images from Earth. It was launched in the hopes that if any alien species did exist and found it, they could learn of Earth, and gain some of our scientific knowledge. Included were photos of men and women of all types of races and creeds; a loose history of the earth; and recordings of some of the greatest artists of all time.
Only four American songs were included. Johnny B. Goode, Louis Armstrong's "Melancholy Blues", a Navajo chant, and Johnson's "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground".
Ry Cooper, when writing the soundtrack to the film Paris, Texas described the song as "the most soulful, transcendent piece in all of American music".
Blind Willie Johnson wasn't a huge artist in his life. He died penniless, but his recordings document one of the most excellent songwriters and composers in Texas history. (J. Charles Miller)