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CD of the Week: The Complete Blind Willie Johnson

July 15, 2007

Who says the blues is the devil’s music?

In 1992, I was just a dude who was finishing a master’s degree and learning to be a father to a new baby. I was an avid blues fan (still am) and a guitar player.

I had heard and read an awful lot about Blind Willie Johnson before I ever heard a note of his music. I had an old copy of Guitar Player magazine laying around because it had essential albums from different genres, and the album pictured at left, Praise God I’m Satisfied was listed as one of the 20 essential blues recordings. If memory serves me correctly, the review in the magazine said something like, “if Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you’re probably already dead.” Anything that inspired language that strong insisted upon being heard.

Problem: this was 1992. No turntable. No Amazon-dot-com. No iTunes. Heck, no computer in my house (just an old Apple IIc which was horribly outdated but I could get some word processing done on it). No instant gratification when it comes to hard-to-find music. So I found a mail-order vinyl and CD joint, paid nearly 25 bucks, and had a shiny new Praise God I’m Satisfied CD sent to my duplex.

Well, believe the hype. This was great music, recorded in the twenties and preserved on old 78s which were transferred to CD. The scratchy sound of the old records went perfectly with Blind Willie’s gruff voice, street-weary delivery, haunting moan and biting slide guitar.

And yes, Dark Was the Night made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Then 1993 rolls around and Columbia-Legacy decides to reissue a bunch of blues recordings. Among them: The Complete Blind Willie Johnson. As much as I loved Praise God I’m Satisfied, there was another CD worth of material I hadn’t heard so I had to have it in all of its minty-fresh reissued glory. And I wasn’t disappointed. Everything here is great.

Let me warn you: this music is an acquired taste. It sounds like old 78s playing, not like a Leo Kottke recording. Blind Willie’s voice can fall somewhere between Howlin’ Wolf and Popeye. His singing partner – well, she ain’t exactly setting the world on fire. But there is a passion here that is present in only the greatest music. Willie sings and moans and whoops and hollers like he’s trying to convince Jesus to save him and he fears for his mortal soul.

Willie sometimes lets his guitar do the singing – he’ll start to sing and he won’t finish the line with his mouth but with the strings, as though the guitar is an extension of his voice. This collection begins with “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole,” a confident affirmation of faith but continues with the lament of “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” (when mother is dead), and “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying.” He ventures into biblical narrative with “If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down” (also known as Samson and Delilah). He warns, “You’re Going to Need Somebody On Your Bond,” and urges the listener to repentance. In the context of preachy, often scary songs the gentle waltz of “If It Had Not Been For Jesus” comes as a sweet, prayerful surprise.

This reissue from 1993 is probably as good as these recordings ever will sound, and they’re all here. Blind Willie Johnson’s music is a treasure. Page-Plant, Kaiser-Mansfield, Clapton, Cooder, Rev. Gary Davis, and the Blues Brothers have all drunk from this well of living water.

Come hear these streetcorner preachin’ blues. Taste and see that Blind Willie is good. You just might find that the Lord gets hold of you, too.

H/T – Art Ruch.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 15, 2007 11:37 am

    Amen, Brother. Blind Willie was a true original!

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