Blind Willie Johnson - Complete Recorded Titles Volume 1(1927 to 10th December 1929)
2011 European CD release.
"The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American Music" – was Ry Cooder’s description of "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground". Whether this judgement is excessive or not, it certainly cements the guitar evangelist and street singer, Blind Willie Johnson’s position as one of the greatest of all American slide guitarists. In his short recording career from December 1927 to April 1930, a little under two and a half years, he would produce music that would have an immense influence on his contemporaries and later generations and cultures.
The recordings were released on the Columbia label – one of the best selling ‘race’ labels – and he was in the company of Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Barbecue Bob and others. It is highly likely that Willie’s records were well known by all his near and later contemporaries across all of the Southern States.
I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole was pressed in numbers approaching 10,000 – even more than a Bessie Smith record of the same period. His fast melodic slide lines and characteristically fierce, rasping vocal instantly imprint his unique style on the listener. The rhythm is propelled along with an alternating thumb pattern against the delicate melody line. This vocal ‘sound’, not unlike the Hell and Damnation vocal of a Baptist preacher such as a fired-up Rev. A.W. Nix, was an affectation that Willie used for dramatic effect – yet, it was often supplanted, when needed, by a clear, precise tenor voice. The B side of this first recording was Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. It reinforces the idea that Willie was already an assured, accomplished performer in that it concludes with an entirely instrumental verse! It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine has become a standard of generations of ‘blues singers’ and Gospel singers alike.
Another classic Gospel theme, this song shows Willie’s use of the guitar as an addition to his singing. He often plays instead of singing and completes unfinished vocal lines with a guitar phrase. It demonstrates how his melodies run the complete length of the guitar neck, mostly up one string. Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time is one of the greats. Again it is propelled by a rock steady rhythm. Dark Was The Night – Cold Was The Ground, as hinted at in the opening paragraph, is heart-stopping in its unique emotion. Nothing else like this exists in the ‘race’ catalogue of Black America. The last song produced on this first recording session was completely different. If I Had My Way, I’d Tear The Building Down insistently drones with a repeat flatpicked pattern. The staccato pattern underpins the long ‘wordy’ verses. This is the first of the songs in the ‘other’ Willie Johnson style. Simple, chordal, almost church congregation flatpicked, sing-alongs, they still retain an enormous rhythmic and almost hypnotic power.
Willie was brought back to the studio almost exactly one year later in December 1928 by Columbia, anxious to repeat the initial success of the first Johnson recordings. This time he came with Willie B. Richardson, his first wife. Obviously, she was sensitive and familiar with the material and her background vocals gel effectively with Willie’s gravelly voice.
Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge and Jesus Is Coming Soon are both executed in the rhythmic flatpicking style with Willie B providing the background vocals. The latter song is the first of Willie’s three narrative storylines – this one is about the 1918 Influenza outbreak that killed millions in Europe and the USA. He returns to using a slide for Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying, again with an instrumental final verse. Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning features his virtuoso slide solo in the middle that again duplicates the high string lead line but in the lower register.
Again, almost exactly twelve months later in December 1929, Columbia had him in the studio – this time in New Orleans, Louisiana. Let Your Light Shine On Me breaks some new ground in Willie’s style. It starts as a mournful and soulful hymn sung in his rather delicate tenor voice, then it adds some simple strumming rhythms for two verses. Then, the percussive guitar banging and the trademark fierce vocal growl drive it up a gear. This rolls along until the end with a reversal back to the delicate tenor voice for the final ….."shine on me". God Don’t Never Change was the next slide piece recorded. Bye And Bye I’m Goin’ To See The King is interesting for his use of the ‘smooth tenor’ voice over his slide playing and a double time instrumental piece as the last verse.
The last song on this first New Orleans day was the extraordinary Sweeter As The Years Roll By. It is a strummed and flat-picked ‘dum-ching’ sort of song which is powered along by the use of his most ‘gravelly’ voice of all.
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