One has to wonder how much longer people in the modern age will be able to listen to music from the last century and even understand the context or significance it holds. When one considers the realities of an internet driven world - the instantaneous connectivity to all corners of the earth and the inhabitants and customs of those corners, access to all information and culture in the blink of an eye - it is hard to imagine what mystery or lesson music from early in the last century can bring us. Or is it? From the second Blind Willie Johnson’s frog-croak of a voice and liquid quicksilver guitar technique comes over the speakers, the listener is taken to a time and place where the racial, regional and spiritual differences between men determined not only the music they made and listened to, but their fate in life as well. In the late 1920’s when most of the recordings on this essential CD were made it was still possible to experience parts of the country that felt and sounded like different countries altogether. Today, the world shrinks daily as mass marketing, social networking and the acceleration of culture has flattened our horizons and our expectations. Blind Willie Johnson’s songs come from a long gone rural America where the course of human events were slow-moving, distant and seemed to be surely directed by the hand of the almighty. The enormity and uncontrolled nature of historical events and the mysteries of life live vividly in these songs.
Most of Blind Willie Johnson’s songs are either retellings of historical events like “God Moves On The Water” which chillingly tells of the Titanic sinking, or others when he remembers the 1918 flu epidemic that killed thousands, or they are profoundly moving religious exhortations. Like a preacher, the blind singer was able to convey his fervor and belief like few others. His vocals are loud and direct and his guitar style is miraculous even by today’s standards. Like his more historically famous contemporaries Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, Johnson’s playing betrays some conventional technique but also hints at some divine inspiration. It is so accurate and personal it simultaneously shows him to be part of a great tradition and stamps his unique individuality on every phrase.
Also like Robert Johnson et al, Blind Willie Johnson’s style and repertoire are direct antecedents to everything that is rock and roll. You will recognize a number of songs on this disc like “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (Led Zeppelin), “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning” (Hot Tuna) and “Motherless Children Have A Hard Time” (Richie Havens, Eric Clapton) as familiar rock standards and crucial building blocks to everything we consider modern. Possibly most interesting is Johnson’s unexplainable composition “Dark Was The Night - Cold Was The Ground.” Like no other blues song I can think of, or any song of any genre for that matter, “Dark Was The Night” is a shivering formless slide guitar piece punctuated by Johnson humming and moaning over his own playing. It is haunting and beautiful and unlike anything else you have ever heard. When its sheer beauty and otherworldly nature are paired with the knowledge of Johnson’s limited options, education and lifetime experiences it adds up to one of the great musical mysteries. Or perhaps there is no mystery. The explanation was that beauty lurked around every corner before we knew what lay there ahead of time.
- Paul Epstein