There are lots of blind bluesmen. But there was only one Blind Willie Johnson. They called him the sightless visionary. A virtuoso on the bottleneck guitar, with a forceful, chilling voice. He was a religious man who sang in a rough “false” bass—a technique called vocal masking, an ancient African musical tradition. And with his haunting guitar, he made the blues sound like god’s music and gospel sound like the devil’s work.
Blind Willie had a tough life. Born in the belly of Texas in 1897. He was blinded at three during a fight between his stepmother and father. He learned to play a cigar box guitar at five. Lived as a preacher, and cut four sessions as a gospel artist for Columbia Records. Legend has it he once incited a riot just by singing his song about Samson and Delilah. He got arrested. The song—it’s lyrics, his voice—was just too powerful, too dangerous.
Blind Willie only cut thirty singles during his brief career. But he made an indelible mark on the universe. In 1977, NASA selected a sampling of Earth’s greatest music to send out to space on the Voyager Probe. Examples of earth’s best music. Alongside Bach, Beethoven and Chuck Berry, was Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night.”
(January 22, 1897 – September 18, 1945)
Blind Willie Johnson, the man known as the “sightless visionary” was born near Brenham, Texas on January 22, 1897. His sound is characterized by his incredible voice, ranging from a high falsetto to a low “false bass” growl, accompanied by his virtuoso slide guitar work.
Blind Willie wasn’t born blind. It’s said that his stepmother threw lye in young Willie’s face to spite his father for cheating on her.
Willie knew what he wanted to do at a young age. He loved music and he loved the Lord. So at five years old he taught himself to play a cigar box guitar. As he grew, he continued to play and preach in the church and in the streets.
His singing was so powerful that he was once arrested for intent to incite a riot by playing his song about Samson and Delilah, “If I Had my Way I’d Tear the Building Down.” Willie’s recording debut came as a gospel artist for Columbia. He recorded a total of thirty songs between 1927 and 1930.
Despite his incredible talent, Blind Willie Johnson lived in poverty and obscurity for the rest of his life. In the summer of 1945, his home burned down. Johnson lived in the ruins of his home, sleeping on a damp bed in the Texas heat. He contracted malarial fever, and died on September 18, 1945.
His seminal track “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” was included as the penultimate track on the Voyager Golden Record, placed in the 1977 unmanned Voyager Project Space Probes. The only track to follow: a Beethoven Cavatina.
C.C.’s Blind Willie Johnson Playlist: