"Blind" Willie Johnson

Painted by Russell Cushman

To hear Dark was the Night, Cold Was the Ground , click on the link below:

Born in 1897 in Pendleton, Texas, near Waco,( according to the latest research) Blind Willie Johnson sang his Blues-styled gospel songs on the streets of Navasota and other Brazos Valley towns for nickels and dimes. Fans put coins into his tin cup which was tied to his guitar neck.

This was known as busking. Willie occasionally played and competed at the major intersections of Texas across from Blind Lemon Jefferson. They were known to duel during harvet time at Hearne, a major cotton processing center. To play opposite Blind Lemon took a lot of pluck, especially for a blind kid.

Jefferson was quite territorial, but Johnson had faced more evil enemies, including his stepmother who had thrown lye in his eyes as a child. But he entertained with abandon, and had learned to make eerie sounds on his guitar using various objects such as a brass ring, bottle or pocketknife, which added a deep and weird spiritual effect to his songs, and still gives the shivers to enthusiasts today.

Mance Lipscomb remembered his visits here, when he would ask Mance to tune his guitar for him. The aspiring local blues man remembered two blind blues musicians bravely strolling around Navasota arm in arm, and playing in front of Tex’s Radio repair shop at 10thand Washington, gratefully taking tips in a tin cup from passers-by.  It has been said that Willie traveled with Blind Willie McTell, and that may be who the other blind musician was. Married and based in Marlin, Johnson recorded numerous times for Columbia beginning in 1927, first in Dallas, then New Orleans and Atlanta, and often with the sweet back up vocals of his wife Willie (Harris) Johnson, who finally settled down in Marlin to raise their only child. They soon separated.

Johnson remarried, the next time to Angeline Robinson, sister of blues master L. C. “Good Rockin” Robinson, of Somerville. He is said to have toured with Willie McTell, another blind bluesman, who also went on to become one of the most famous blues men in America. Mance told how Willie and another blind musician (whose name he could not recall), walked around town arm in arm, fearlessly crossing the muddy streets of Navasota as they slowly threaded their way amongst the horses and buggies.

Blind Willie Johnson was one of the early developers of the slide guitar sound. Today his music enjoys cult status, and has inspired generations of guitarists, like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, who have recorded his songs. One of Mance’s best songs was a Blind Willie classic, also covered by Clapton, called “Motherless children have a hard time.” This song actually told of Willie’s unfortunate loss of his mother when just a toddler.

Johnson never enjoyed a financial reward from his music, which was so unusual that most American audiences ignored it. He had a novel affectation of changing voices in the middle of a song, escalating from a rugged tenor to an unsettling false bass that made a good impersonation of a demoniacLegend has it that he so frightened authorities and the audience with his wild performance of “If I had my way, I’d tear this building down” that he was hauled to jail in New Orleans for inciting a riot. Click below for If I Had My Way:

His last years were spent preaching, but Blind Willie died in poverty and squalor in Beaumont, Texas in 1945. 

Only recently, and thanks in part to the diligent research of Jack Ortmann, have the folks in Beaumont put up a historical marker celebrating this world-famous, yet largely uncelebrated musician. Ironically, today collectors will pay over $200.00 for one of his original 78 rpm records. Yet most music lovers in Texas have never heard of him.

Even more amazing, Willie was given a special status among his peers when his song "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground," was included on a CD of "essential music," made of gold and placed in the Voyager spacecraft to take our World's greatest music into the farthest reaches of man.

In fact it is merely his most spiritual soulful moans and utterances, accompanied with his iconoclastic guitar magic, with few if any intelligible words, making art that still leaves his fans spellbound.

It's as if the Earth was not ready for his Gospel-blues genius and its repentant inhabitants sent it on to a place in the great beyond where he might receive a more worthy reception. I am not one of those who thinks there is even one more earth.. the odds are against it. But out there somewhere, everywhere, in Eternity is the Creator, who I am sure has made a place for him.   

A record of gold in space, including Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.

Hear Blind Willie's classic "Motherless Children," which was recorded by Bob Dylan, Mance Lipscomb, Thomas Shaw, Blind Arvella Grey and Eric Clapton!

Bob Dylan sings this BRAZOS VALLEY CLASSIC!

Eric Clapton rocks an' rolls with Motherless Children!

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