Blind Willie Johnson Biography

c.1902, Marlin, Texas, USA, d. c.1947, Beaumont, Texas, USA. Blind Willie Johnson was arguably the greatest and most popular ‘sanctified’ singer to record in the pre-World War II era. His forceful singing and stunning guitar work ensured that he continued to sell records even into the Depression. His blindness has been attributed to many causes, the most likely being that his stepmother threw lye-water in his face during a jealous fit when he was about seven. That he should turn to music after this is a recurring motif in the stories of many blind black singers, but even earlier, Johnson had admitted to a desire to preach. Now he combined the two talents to produce outstandingly powerful religious music as he played for tips on the streets. Despite this commitment to the church there seems to have been a secular side to his music, and it remains probable that he recorded two unissued blues under the pseudonym of Blind Texas Marlin at his second session for Columbia Records. Johnson began recording for the label in December 1927, by which time he had moved to Dallas; his first release became an instant success, selling in excess of 15, 000 copies. Between then and April 1930 he recorded a total of 30 issued tracks (all for the same company), maintaining a level of quality that is amazing even by today’s standards.

Early research on Johnson’s life was done by Sam Charters when he interviewed Johnson’s wife Angeline in the late 50s. The picture was fleshed out, 20 years later, by the work of Dan Williams who reported on Johnson’s travelling habits, including a spell in the company of Blind Willie McTell. Charters also noted the influence exerted on his singing style by an obscure, older singer named Madkin Butler, and his early commitment to the Church Of God In Christ. Many of Johnson’s recordings feature a second, female vocalist, and it was long assumed that this was Angeline. Now it seems more likely that this is an early girlfriend (possibly wife) of Johnson’s, called Willie B. Harris, whose affiliations were with the ‘Sanctified’ church. Willie Johnson had returned to the Baptist fold by the time he married Angeline in June 1930. When using a second vocalist Johnson favoured a ragged, antiphonal approach to his singing, in which he usually employed a marked false bass, and when performing alone he used his guitar as the second voice, often leaving it to complete his own vocal lines. He could finger pick, but is most famous for his outstanding slide technique. Possibly his most well-known piece today is the free-form guitar impersonation of a congregation moaning ‘Dark Was The Night And Cold The Ground’, which was used in its original form in Pasolini’s film The Gospel According To Saint Matthew and adapted by Ry Cooder as the theme music to Paris, Texas. Johnson lived his later years in Beaumont, Texas, and it was there that his house caught fire some time in the 40s. Johnson survived the fire but returned to the house and slept on a wet mattress covered by newspapers. This resulted in the pneumonia that killed him.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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