Blind Willie Johnson Profile:
Born: 1902 in Marlin TX
Died: 1947 in Beaumont TX
Although not purely a blues artist, guitarist Blind Willie Johnson's unique gospel music skewed so closely to the blues in sound and emotion as to be virtually indistinguishable. Known primarily for his slide guitar playing and powerful vocal style, Johnson would sing gospel-blues and Negro spirituals on street corners in Central Texas towns. Little did the self-taught musician realize that decades later his music would not only be remembered, but that modern artists would attempt to duplicate his potent slide guitar sound.
The Street Preacher
It is generally thought that Johnson was born in the Temple, Texas area in 1902. His mother died while he was still an infant, and his father later remarried. An argument between his father and stepmother resulted in his stepmother throwing lye into his eyes, blinding the young Johnson at the age of seven. Johnson taught himself guitar, and began performing on the street corner for tips.
Johnson achieved his unique sound by tuning to open D, playing a single-note melody and using his pocketknife as a slide. Combined with his loud, gruff bass vocals, Johnson's interpretation of traditional songs, and his performance of originals, was otherworldly. Johnson had no aspirations of becoming a blues musician, however. He became a Baptist preacher and street corner evangelist, preferring spiritual songs over the secular world of the blues.
Johnson's Brief Recording Career
Regardless of his career ambitions, Johnson came to the attention of Columbia Records. The label signed the guitarist, his initial 1927 recording session for Columbia resulting in timeless classics like "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time," "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed," and Johnson's signature song, "Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)." Later sessions also included Johnson's wife, Angeline, on vocals.
Although Johnson would not record again after 1930, he continued to play the streets well into the 1940s, until his death from pneumonia in 1947. Through the years, Johnson's songs have been recorded by a number of folk, rock, and blues artists, including Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Recommended Albums: The Complete Blind Willie Johnson pretty much says it all, offering up everything the artist recorded between 1927 and 1931.