Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson had a profound influence on the world of music. Born in 1887, the son of a Texas sharecropper, his father got him a cigar box guitar at the age of 5, and the guitar became his lifelong companion. He became blind at the age of 7. Reports differ on the cause, but the one that seems to stick is that his step-mother splashed water with lye in it on his face in a moment of anger, causing the blindness.

Whatever the cause, Blind Willie Johnson sang Gospel-infused blues, a craft that he honed as a street musician and street preacher. Like many black musicians of his day, he didn’t every make much money, but his legacy lives on in his music.

Perhaps, his most well-known song is Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground – adapted from a Methodist hymn from the 1700’s. A copy of the song is included in the recordings sent up on the Voyager I Spacecraft, launched in 1977. The song, about the death of Jesus, has traveled over 13 billion miles through space:

Other musicians learned from and were influenced by Blind Willie Johnson, after an anthology of his songs were published in 1960. One of his that has influenced future generations includes In My Time of Dying/Jesus Make My Dying Bed:

Bob Dylan may have been the first to reproduce In My Time of Dying for the 60’s generation:

Led Zeppelin followed suit with its own unique take on the Gospel-laden song:

Another Blind Willie Johnson song that was picked up by other is Nobody’s Fault but Mine:

Led Zeppelin, again, took this gospel blues Blind Willie Johnson song and recast it:

Another song that Blind Willie Johnson made famous is John the Revelator:

Maybe the most famous replay of John the Revelator was done by Taj Mahal for the beginning of the Blues Brothers movie in 2000:

One of the Larkin Poe sisters, descendants of the writer, Edgar Allen Poe, does a great rendition of John the Revelator:

But the best rendition, by far, is done by the inimical Phil Keaggy:

Blind Willie Johnson might be best played and understood by the iconoclastic musician and music historian, Ry Cooder, however, who seems to have gone through a revival of his own as of late. Here is in a classic redo of Dark Was the Night Cold was the Ground:


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