Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson's voice is something else--a "false bass" growl that bursts forth from his tenor range and pulls the listener in with powerful lyrics generally of a strong religious nature and makes for an unusual deep dark blues and gospel stew.  On top of this, the remarkable slide and straight picking acoustic guitar playing might get short shrift with all the attention to Johnson's voice, but it is uniformly excellent playing.

With digital remastering, these 1920s recordings sound more immediate and, perhaps to some more listeners, more claustrophobic, but it is also true that just having the man's voice and guitar is all that is needed for a spectacular performance.

There are some tracks here that are well-known to even casual blues listeners (this blogger doesn't pretend to be a connoisseur), such as "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground"; "It's Nobody's Fault But Mine"; "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time"; "Let Your Light Shine on Me," which partly dispenses with that guttural growl; "John the Revelator," which has a female backing vocal from Willie B. Harris present on other tracks, as well, and others.  The first-named piece is a revelation, with the wordless emotional singing and beautiful guitar playing tingling the spine in ways that few others have.

But, there are many pieces, less familiar to amateurs like this blogger, that amply show the immense talent of a man who never received his due.  One standout is "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down," which has a great rhythmic sense to drive the piece vocally and instrumentally.  Another is "I'm Gonna Run to the City of Refuge," another vocal jewel with the female backing vocal on the chorus.  "God Won't Never Change" is sung completely in Johnson's straightforward tenor and is a gem.  "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond" is another example of stellar slide guitar and Johnson's "false bass" vocals harmonize nicely (this isn't always true, however--as on "Praise God I'm Satisfied"and others) with his female counterpart.  "God Moves on the Water" has some very tasty slide work and a nice, growl-less vocal.

This is a collection of consistently rewarding early recorded blues and gospel from a master of acoustic guitar and deeply personal and stylized vocalizing.  Kudos also go to Samuel Charters for his detailed essay on Johnson and his music.

Particularly affecting is the fact that, as Charters tells so well, Johnson was a preacher in Beaumont, Texas, when, in 1945, his house burned down and he was left to live among the charred ruins, catching a fever that developed into pneumonia.  According to the woman who was married to him, a hospital refused to treat him because he was blind and Johnson died needlessly at 48.  Too many great black musicians of all genres died too young and in shocking circumstances at a time when they were creating some of America's greatest music and not given their due.  The story of Blind Willie Johnson may be one of the most heartbreaking of all.

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