Monday, August 06, 2007

"100 Greats" # 066: Blind Willie Johnson: Sweeter as the Years Go By

In the 1920s and early ‘30s, Blind Willie Johnson took sanctified singing deeper on recordings than had anyone else; and in 1977, he was represented on a gold record of audio recordings included in the payload carried by the Voyager space probe, a ‘wild-blue-yonder’ launch which exemplified the best impulses of NASA in the Jimmy Carter years, and which took human-kind—or at least our artifacts—farther than we had ever been. Those were also heights we will probably never reach again: after the 1986 Challenger disaster and the subsequent Reagan-appointed Rogers Commission whitewashing, and then after 7 years of George W Bush’s Republican dictatorship, Bush-appointed NASA administrators claimed the ‘jury was still out‘ on global warming. In the bread-and-circuses ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’ end-days of empire, any money that might at one point have gone into the public expression of the nation’s pan-universal curiosity and capacity to reach for the stars is siphoned into the pockets of the wealthy. And the odds seem good that we might destroy ourselves, which means that all that will be left of homo sapiens will be sun-bleached oxidized acid-rain-pocked machines sitting on the surface of a dead world.

But in 1977, Jimmy Carter—a president who looks better and better through the bar of history: an ex-president who builds houses for poor people, rather monuments to his own legacy—authored the message which Americans opted to send ‘Out There.’ And the music that was included celebrates the best of the human race’s infinite diversity: Bach and Mozart, Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry, gamelan, didjeridu, and pipa music. But perhaps the most beautiful, and most spiritual, music on the Golden Record—that which best expresses both the courage and the terror with which humans have faced the inexplicable indifference of life, death, and the Cosmos--are the Beethoven 1803 Fifth Symphony (though I’d argue that Beethoven Six is both more human and more transcendent, and carries less imperialist and toxically-individualist, it didn’t make the Gold Record), and Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 ‘Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground.’

His songs have been covered by everyone from Peter, Paul and Mary and the Grateful Dead to Led Zepplin and the White Stripes. Ry Cooder has built a musical identity and an honorable career out of the implications of this piece of music. To me, Willie's music has a depth that mine has tried for 30 years to live up to.

Listen to Johnson’s storming version of the Samson and Delilah story, ‘If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down‘. It captures a lot of the things that make Willie inimitable: the rasping “false-bass” singer which was a staple in gospel preacher’s vocabulary (listen to Rev C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s daddy, for great examples), which was borrowed by both pre- and post-War blues singers (Bobby Bland’s) and best exemplified by the titanic Howlin’ Wolf, but which reaches all the way back to the jaliya and possessed blacksmiths speaking in tongues in West Africa—and which found great modern expression in the singing of South Africa’s Mahlathini, the “Lion of Soweto.” It’s got his great gospel-style open-chord guitar picking (Willie, like Booker White, played with a slide and the guitar flat down on his lap), and the wonderful hypnotic ostinati that he used to accompany his preacherly exhortations between choruses. There’s a story that Willie was nearly arrested in New Orleans for singing this song in front of a building that turned out to be the US Customs house, but, dearly as I would love to identify Willie as a brother vernacular radical, I think his version Samson’s fall is speaking of a more spiritual and autobiographical than political apocalypse. Willie’s “If I Had My Way” also captures, even in the limited-duration imperfect fidelity of the 78, something of the intensity Willie must have generated live, when his improvised sermon riffing off the scripture catches fire, driven by his boogie-woogie bass line—he almost goes into a trance. When Willie sang, you knew he understood Samson, blinded and shorn, chained to the columns of the Temple at Jerusalem, just before he pulled it down on top of his enemies and himself.

One of the records I recorded with my medieval band included another version, a Latin sequence (narrative sacred song) of the Samson and Delilah story (link). We recorded in a small church in the cornfields of central Iowa (link) and I certainly think it’s one of the most transcendent performances my colleagues ever put on record: both David’s epic solo vocal turn, and the astonishing, orchestral, through-composed vielle part Jann created, put it in the category of one of the greatest medieval performances I’ve ever heard. But for me, sitting in that hot dusty church in the Iowa cornfields, and thinking of that hot dusty day in Dallas when Willie recorded his version, all I could hope was that our own version of this story of life, death, and transcendence could come within hollering distance of his.

“John the Revelator” features more of Willie’s thumb-led melodic 12-string guitar picking (the only 12-string players even in Willie’s league were Lead Belly and Blind Gary Davis, both of them with their own preacherly inclinations) and his call-and-response duet with first wife Willie B Harris. It’s not hard to imagine Willie preaching this “end-timers” sung version of Revelation in a gospel church, and it’s not hard to imagine the reaction of a black congregation. This may have been the source of Son House’s slightly later but equally intimidating a cappella version.

In my personal pantheon, Willie stands for all those hellfire-and-brimstone ministers in the black South whose apocalyptic visions preached the Christian life-that-conquers death, but also the dark grim fatalism of those who knew their only hope for salvation was in the Sweet Bye and Bye, because it damned sure wasn’t coming in this life.

“Lord I Just Can’t Keep from Crying” sets up a catchphrase borrowed by everybody from Bob Dylan (who, more and more explicitly over the years, has made clear just how literally he meant the dictum “you can learn everything you need in life from traditional music”) to Springsteen to the Stones to John Renbourn.

“If It Had Not Been for Jesus”, a duet with his first wife Willie B Harris, reminds us that Willie was a Texas singer, and that there was an awful lot of working-class white, as well as black, sanctified music on the streets of Dallas—it sounds like Maybelle and AP Carter, “boom-chick” guitar part and all.

“Church I’m Fully Saved” is maybe the flip side of the coin to “If I Had My Way”. It’s got a lot of the same Willie thumbprints: bass-picking, call-and-response, false bass, but here Willie, like any great artist, uses the building blocks of his particular artistic palette to construct the distinct and individual expression of salvation, instead of damnation. Willie sings, his wife Willie replies like a gospel congregation, and you get some sense of the reality of the salvation that they’re singing about, and that carried Willie through loss of his eyesight, his family, and life itself. For the three minutes and eight seconds of “Church I’m Fully” you, too, believe that Willie’s going to be saved. That it will all come right, some time.

In the past several years, I’ve gotten in the habit, on gigs, of seguing “Jesus on the Mainline” into Willie's “Need Somebody on Your Bond.” “Jesus” has been covered by everyone from the Pilgrim Jubilee and Chosen Gospel Singers, to the Gospel Harmonettes, to Ry Cooder and Joseph Spence (and I always felt, somehow, that Spence and Blind Willie would have understood each other: maybe it was the wildly idiosyncratic singing, or the thunderous guitar-picking, or the sheer intensity with which they both inhabited their songs—but I always felt that, despite the contrast of Spence’s exuberant hedonism and Willie’s steamrolling preaching, they would have gotten along—and then there’s the compatibility of their ubiquitous use of dropped-D tuning).

Anyway, one night on a recent coffeehouse gig with the Juke Band duo, me and fellow guitar slinger the Dearly Deported were playing the “Jesus/Need Somebody” medley. And for some reason—maybe because the groove was working well, or because the posturing over-dressed high-school students were shutting up for a change, or because we had a lot of friends in the house—I “got happy” a little myself, and starting chanting out the names just everyone who I’ve had “on my Bond”--who's ever had my back:

Well I got…Professor Vela on my bond
I got…Prof Vela on my bond
Thataway, in the midnight, when death come creepin’ in the room
I got..Prof Vela on my bond.

Well I got…Dharmonia on my bond

…Sugar Brown’s, on my bond

…Manjusri, on my bond

…my students, on my bond

…Blind Gary Davis, on my bond

…Blind Willie Johnson, on my bond

Racism, greed, and the Middle Passage—the genocidal conviction that “we are God’s chosen people, and all others can be considered damned”—have been some of the most lamentable and contemptible outgrowths of Cotton Mather’s ‘shining city on the hill,’ the most horrible mis-firings of God's Earthly Kingdom which the Puritans thought they were departing into the wilderness to create. In the event, it was no beacon, because the first Anglo settlers in North America, as the great novelist Michael Herr put it, were so ‘spooked by the darkness and emptiness of the continent to which they’d come, [they] felt the necessity to fill up its forests with their own devils.’ And, as Herr says, it led to the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, and the jungles of Vietnam. But somehow that sad history also led to a vision of a society based on effort and community rather than inheritance, and the Bill of Rights, and Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. And it gave us African-American music, and the entire universe—the entire cosmos—of musics it in turned birthed.

If in the End the Voyager is all that remains of us—if in our greed, stupidity and culpability we do succeed in destroying the capacity of the planet to sustain us (which would serve us right, at some level)—then I hope and pray that the Golden Record reaches some kind of sentient organs of audition, that they hear Beethoven Five and ‘Dark was the Night,’ and know that, at some time and in some way, homo sapiens demonstrated the capacity to transcend the greed, cruelty, squalor, and psychotic self-centered “I got mine Jack, so fuck you!” individualism with which we seem to have been hard-wired. And to express, as captured on this record, the desire to reach for the stars. The record is inscribed with the following words:

This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. --President Jimmy Carter

For the past 30 years, and ever sweeter as the years go by, I’ve had Blind Willie Johnson—and Spence, and Magic Sam, and Hendrix, and Duane, and Tommy Makem, and June Pointer, and FZ, and Diz, and Fela, and Charlie Christian, and JB, and Trane, and Eric, and Chris McGregor, and Mingus, and Albert King, and Stravinsky, and Basie, and Ed Bradley, and Tom Binkley, and Bartok, and Nusrat, among many others generous beyond words, or deeds, or even the limits of life and death—on my bond.

These musicians are my fallen heroes, the linchpins of my artistic life, the stars by which I steer. And in the way they have shaped me, I am blessed, and grateful.

Beyond measure.

Now playing: Dandy - Reggae in Your Jeggae


Anonymous said...

My favorite 100 greats post yet!

CJS said...

Thanks! Glad you're digging them.