Monday, January 23, 2006
Violent, Tortured and Abysmal Shouts and Groans
This is Blind Willie Johnson. As anyone who’s heard him will know, he’s the guy who threw Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart out of the band for sounding too effete. His ‘Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)’ has been described by Ry Cooder as the ‘most transcendent piece in all American music’, and was the inspiration for the shimmering slide guitar soundtrack to Paris, Texas. Although usually classed as a blues singer, he abjured any association with the devil’s music and thought of his ‘violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans’ (as an early reviewer called them) as his own way of testifying to the Good Lord. Sometimes his wife fills in in the background with wispy little vocal curlicues.
The ‘blind’ bit comes from the fact that a cheatin’ low-down stepmother threw lye in his eyes when he was nine, on being caught by young Willie’s father.
When his house burned down in the late 40s (no one seems quite sure when) he took up residence in its burnt-out shell, slept on a pile of damp newspapers, caught pneumonia and died.
You may also remember him from such cover-versions as Led Zeppelin’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ and the young Dylan’s ‘Jesus Make My Dying Bed’.
‘Dark Was the Night’ is currently playing somewhere in space on the Voyager probe.