Nick Bollinger reviews a tribute to gospel-blues man Blind Willie Johnson.
An old 19th century hymn, composed by an English clergyman, was the basis for one of the most singular pieces of music ever put to disc: Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’. Johnson plays the melody on a D-tuned guitar, which he frets with an object – possibly a knife - in free floating phrases, which he answers himself in a wordless impassioned moan.
Recorded in Texas in 1927, it’s a haunting piece that has inspired film soundtracks, been covered by everyone from Fairport Convention to the Kronos Quartet, and – in its original form – been sent to interstellar space: one of 27 sound samples of human expression launched aboard the Voyager space probe. If any extraterrestrial out there ever gets to hear it, we’ll know the blues are truly universal.
But of the man who made this extraordinary piece of music, what do we know? He was blind, moved around the American south and played gospel music on the streets for change, sometimes in duet with his wife. There is a story that his version of ‘Samson and Delilah’ was so stirring that when he played it outside the New Orleans Custom House he was arrested for inciting a riot.
His recording career lasted a mere 18 months, and he reportedly died of pneumonia, some time in the 1940s. But his music has continued to exert a powerful pull on listeners and musicians alike, as this new compilation shows.
It’s a tribute album, funded by a kickstarter campaign and produced by Jeffrey Gaskill, who similarly oversaw a collection of Bob Dylan’s gospel songs a few years back, and he’s been particular and smart in his recruitment. The contributors are all well-established, with strong links to blues and gospel if not directly to Johnson’s music.
Tom Waits, whose whole career as a singer might be an attempt to match the ferocious passion of Johnson, is one of this small but distinguished group of acolytes and offers two tracks here, as does Lucinda Williams, both of them emphasising the raw bluesy side of their characters.
There are sweeter voices here too, though no less committed in their delivery. Always prone towards the Biblical, Sinead O’Connor sounds right at home in a stomping, hand-clapping account of ‘Trouble Will Soon Be Over’. And then there’s an actual gospel group, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, who deliver their selection – ‘Motherless Children’ - in classic quartet style.
At other times it’s Johnson’s phenomenally fine guitar playing that’s being honoured. There’s a lovely ‘Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning’ from microtonal master Derek Trucks, and a less refined but wonderfully rattling reading of ‘Bye and Bye’ – with cane-fife and drum accompaniment – from Memphis bottleneck man Luther Dickinson.
And there’s an uncharacteristically animated Cowboy Junkies, who let Johnson set the tempo for their version of ‘Jesus Is Coming Soon’, building on a sample of Johnson’s own recording.
If there’s any fault with these new interpretations, it’s a tendency to take the rawness of Johnson’s recordings and exaggerate it. None go the opposite way - as the Kronos Quartet did with their wonderful 2009 recording of ‘Dark Was The Night’, or Ry Cooder with his Johnson-inspired Paris Texas theme - which was to treat Johnson’s blues to an almost-classical reinvention.
But I did especially like the track that closes the disc. Once again, it’s ‘Dark Was The Night’, this time performed in a New Orleans street-style by Rickie Lee Jones. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone sing the words.
Songs featured: Dark Was The Night, The Soul Of A Man, It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine, Trouble Will Soon Be Over, Motherless Children, Bye and Bye, Jesus Is Coming Soon.
God Don’t Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson is available on Alligator Records.