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. The guitar became his lifelong companion. He was blind by the age of 7. Reports differ on the cause. Perhaps, it’s true that his step-mother splashed water with lye in it on his face in a moment of anger. Whatever the cause, Blind Willie Johnson sang Gospel-infused blues, a craft he honed as a street musician and preacher.
Like many black musicians of his day, he didn’t ever make much money, but his legacy lives on in his music.
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 inspired future generations is In My Time of Dying/Jesus Make My Dying Bed:
Bob Dylan reproduced In My Time of Dying for the 60’s generation:
Led Zeppelin followed suit in the 1970’s:
Nobody’s Fault but Mine:
Inspired Led Zeppelin again:
Blind Willie Johnson did John the Revelator:
John the Revelator was redone by Taj Mahal for the beginning of the Blues Brothers movie in 2000:
And more recently, Larkin Poe, the old soul sisters from Georgia, do a great John the Revelator:
But the best rendition, by far, is done by the virtuoso, 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 a classic redo of Dark Was the Night Cold was the Ground: