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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, January 22, 2007

BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON'S 110th BIRTHDAY




Had he lived, the other great Blind Willie would have been 110 years old today. There's a Bob Dylan Encyclopedia entry on him.

For help with much detail, thanks go to Michael Corcoran for new information researched & published in ‘The Soul of Blind Willie Johnson: Retracing the life of the Texas music icon’, Austin American-Statesman, Austin TX, & an e-mail exchange we had in August 2003. I finally met Mr. Corcoran last September, when he came to my gig on the university campus at Austin and gave me a copy of his very readable book All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (Austin: UT Press, 2005), in which he includes a version of his piece on Blind Willie Johnson. Here's mine:

Johnson, Blind Willie [1897 - 1945]
Willie Johnson was born on a farm in the tiny community of Independence, Texas (halfway between Austin and Houston) on January 22, 1897. He is said to have been blinded by his stepmother at the age of 7, but grew up to become one of the finest bottleneck guitarists ever recorded, and therefore an influence on everyone from those who knew him to Duane Allman, Jimmy Page, Ry Cooder, Eric Clapton and all the usual suspects. He was also a singer of thrilling, controlled power and great dignity. Indeed he could produce two distinctly different singing voices (as mentioned in the entry Simon, Paul, as it happens).

Johnson recorded thirty sides between 1927 and 1930, some with his first wife, Willie B. Harris, and then never recorded again, though his first release, ‘If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down’, coupled with ‘Mother’s [a mistranscription of ‘Motherless’] Children Have A Hard Time’, sold 15,000 copies, and he continued to travel, preach and sing all the way ‘from Maine to the Mobile Bay’, to quote his old friend Blind Willie McTell, and he was a regular broadcaster on KTEM in Temple and in church services broadcast on KPLC in Lake Charles.

By the early 1960s he had become one of the best-known pre-war gospel bluesmen, because he had made an appearance on both the crucial vinyl compilations of the 1950s. First, Harry Smith's American Folk Music reissued Johnson’s ‘John The Revelator’ in 1952; then Sam Charters’ 1959 LP The Country Blues included his ‘You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond’. Both tracks had been recorded in Atlanta in 1930.

Johnson’s ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed’, cut in Dallas three years earlier, duly became ‘In My Time Of Dyin’’ on Dylan’s début album. ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed’ - often spelt as ‘Dying-Bed’: a compound noun like ‘praying-ground’ and ‘cooling-board’ - was an old spiritual that had been recorded by a large number of jubilee and gospel groups, sermons-with-singing preachers and many individual singers, among them Charley Patton, a figure as early and as eminent as Blind Willie Johnson, though not so early onto disc with this particular song. (His ‘Jesus Is A Dying-Bed Maker’ was cut in 1929.) At the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village in October 1962, Dylan performed ‘Motherless Children’.

In late 1980, approaching Christian songs from a changed perspective, Dylan brought Maria Muldaur onstage at one of his San Francisco concerts, to sing ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’; in 1992, in a studio in Chicago, Dylan recorded it himself (a recording that remains unreleased and uncirculated). Twelve years later, at the Bonnaroo 2004 Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, he gave a worthy performance of ‘If I Had My Way I Would Tear The Building Down’.

Johnson remains a mysterious figure, though second wife Angeline was interviewed by Sam Charters at her shack in Beaumont, Texas in 1955 (from which Charters concluded mistakenly that she had been the singer who had accompanied him on some of his sides). The interview was issued on a Folkways album, Blind Willie Johnson: His Story, in 1957 (and is transcribed in the notes to the 1993 CD-set The Complete Blind Willie Johnson). His last known address was in Beaumont, Texas, where he ran a House of Prayer. He died in Beaumont of malarial fever, exacerbated by syphilis, on September 18, 1945.

In 1977 Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)’, a compelling synthesis of guitar-work plus wordless humming and moaning cut at his début session in early December fifty years earlier, was included in the "Sounds of Earth" compilation sent into space aboard Voyager One.

[Blind Willie Johnson: ‘John The Revelator’ & ‘You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond’, Atlanta, 20 Apr 1930; ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, ‘Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time’, ‘If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down’ & ‘Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)’, Dallas, 3 Dec 1927; all tracks CD-reissued The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia Legacy Roots N’ Blues Series 472190 2, NY, 1993. Blind Willie Johnson: His Story, Folkways FG3585, NY, 1957. Charley Patton: ‘Jesus Is A Dying-Bed Maker’, Grafton WI, c.Oct 1929. Bob Dylan: ‘Motherless Children’, NYC, Oct 1962, unissued; ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, Chicago, Apr 1992, unissued; ‘If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down’, Manchester TN, 6 Nov 2004. Maria Muldaur with Dylan & band: ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, live, San Francisco, 19 Nov 1980.]

6 Comments:

Anonymous a_j_iriarte@yahoo.es said...

And of course, Dylan played Blind Willie Johnson's "John The Revelator" on his Theme Time Radio Hour "Bible" show.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that the song Dylan performed at Bonnaroo 2004 was actually Rev. Gary Davis' "Samson and Delilah" (which by the way, was also included on the XM Radio "Bible" show). Perhaps Davis' song was modelled on Blind Willie Johnson's one?
Cheers,
Antonio

4:13 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Yes (and Johnson's 'John the Revelator' is my wife Sarah's favourite track of his).

Yes, I know the Bonnaroo performance is always given as Rev Gary Davis' 'Samson and Delilah', but it is so strongly built upon BWJ's 'The Building' that I've always been inclined to cut out the middle man.

5:56 pm  
Anonymous gabriel said...

Apparently, Bob Dylan is related (by marriage anyway) to Blind Willie Johnson. From the Christopher Farley interview in 'Time' magazine, 9 September, 2001 :

'Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan by Howard Sounes, revealed that in 1986, Dylan had a child with one of his backup singers, Carolyn Dennis, and later married her. Speaking about Dennis publicly for the first time, he says she is "a fantastic singer. She's a gospel singer mainly. One of her uncles was Blind Willie Johnson. What more do you need to know about somebody?"'

If that story is true then their daughter, Gabrielle Dennis Dylan, has quite some musical DNA.

3:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was (am?) under the impression that Johnson died of pneumonia after sleeping on a wet bed. His house had caught fire, and the bed was soaked from the water used to put it out. His wife said they put down newspapers to keep them dry, but the moisture soaked through. I had also heard that he was unable--or delayed?--to find a hospital that would treat him, as he was black. Is this a myth, or is it compatible with the account you give? (Also, it strikes me that if he did have syphilis, that might be the actual cause of his blindness . . . ?) I usually play a few BWJ songs in my American History Survey class, so would be very anxious to hear the real story on this. Looks as if I may have been leading my students astray on how he died!

11:39 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Michael Corcoran is the man who has looked most thoroughly and most recently into the life and death of Blind Willie Johnson. His long investigative piece for the Austin American-Statesman has been updated and republished in his book of essays All Over The Map: True Heroes of Texas Music, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. In this he writes of obtaining Johnson's death certificate, and comments:

"Refuting the myth that Johnson died of pneumonia, from sleeping on a wet mattress after a fire, the certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis as a contributing factor..."

7:53 pm  
Anonymous Melody Daniel said...

Just wanted to say "thanks" for such a wonderful post about one of my favorite artists. Also wanted to let you know that I linked to your post as a recommended resource on Blind Willie Johnson's profile on my site, http://www.artistic-lemonade.com -- he's the very first artist profiled on this new site!

Best,
Melody

1:15 am  

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