The Soul of a Man

Who was Blind Willie Johnson?
The Soul Of A Man
Illustration by Marc Burckhardt

On August 20, 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 2 spaceship on a one-way ticket to oblivion. Three weeks later, its sister craft, Voyager 1, blasted off with the same destination. Their mission for the first dozen years or so, as they cruised through the solar system, was to gather data from the planets. Their goal for the next 60,000 years or so, as they leave us far behind, is to carry a message in a bottle to the stars. Alongside an array of high-tech cameras, infrared instruments, and a large parabolic radio antenna, each Voyager bears a stylus, a phonograph record, and directions for playing it. The record isn’t Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Kiss’s Love Gun, both of which were top ten albums in the summer of 1977. This record is made of copper and plated in gold, created to last forever, to offer an audio and visual slide show of all things Earthly. This is who we are, it says. Or were. The record includes words (greetings in 55 languages), sounds (a train, a kiss, a barking dog), pictures (mountains, dolphins, sprinters), and ninety minutes of music. There are panpipes from Peru, bagpipes from Bulgaria, and drums from Senegal.

And at the very end, summing up the power and the pathos of everything that went before, are two singular pieces of music by two singular men who couldn’t have been more different. One was a deaf German whose song was recorded by a string quartet in a professional studio. The other was a blind Texan who played his song on a cheap guitar in a Dallas hotel room. The German is Ludwig van Beethoven, and he closes the album, befitting his reputation as the greatest composer ever. The Cavatina from his thirteenth string quartet was written in his last years, when he was dying. It is six and a half minutes of sweet elegy, music that says what couldn’t be put into words. This is it. This is the end.

Leading into it is a song recorded and played by a twentieth-century street musician, Blind Willie Johnson. The song is “Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground,” a largely wordless hymn built around the yearning cries of Johnson’s slide guitar and the moans and melodies of his voice. The two musical elements track each other, finishing each other’s phrases; Johnson hums fragments of the diffuse melody, then answers with the fluttering sighs of steel or glass moving over the strings. Sometimes the guitar jimmies a low, ascending melody that sounds like a man trying to climb out of a mud hole. Then the guitar goes up high, playing an inquisitive, hopeful line, and the voice goes high too, copying the melody. There’s no meter or rhythm. In fact, “Dark Was the Night” sounds less like a song than a scene—the Passion of Jesus, his suffering on the cross, the ultimate pairing of despair and belief. The original melody and lyrics (“Dark was the night and cold was the ground, on which the Lord was laid”) may have originated in eighteenth-century England, but Johnson reinvented them. Occasionally his slide clicks against the neck of the guitar, and you remember that this was just a man playing a song in front of a microphone. You can hear the air in the room. You can hear the longing in his voice. This is what it sounds like to be a human being.

The slide guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, who used “Dark Was the Night” as the motif for his melancholy sound track to Paris, Texas, once called the song “the most transcendent piece in all American music.” In about 60,000 years, one of the Voyagers just might enter another solar system. Maybe it will be intercepted. Maybe the interceptors will figure out how to play that record. Maybe they’ll hear “Dark Was the Night.” Maybe they’ll wonder, What kind of creature made that music?

There are hundreds of books on Beethoven; though he was born 240 years ago, we know almost everything there is to know about him. But Johnson is an utter mystery. We know that he died on September 18, 1945, in Beaumont. But we don’t know for certain when and where he was born, and it’s possible we never will. Almost everyone who knew him is gone. And though a few of his contemporaries told stories about him before passing on, many of them had lively imaginations.

What we know for sure is that for a brief period of time, Johnson was a recording star, one of the most popular gospel “race” artists of his era, outselling the renowned blues singer Bessie Smith during the Depression. He recorded thirty songs between 1927 and 1930; many featured a female background singer. His first two sessions were in Dallas, in 1927 and 1928, and he recorded many of his best songs there—“Dark Was the Night,” “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down,” “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time.” His first song, “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole,” was released in January 1928 and sold 15,400 copies, a lot for the time. He received attention in unusual places. Johnson was “apparently a religious fanatic,” wrote one critic for the New York literary review The Bookman, who also noted his “violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans and his inspired guitar.” Johnson’s third session took place in New Orleans in 1929, and his last was in Atlanta in April 1930. Only 800 copies of that final record were even pressed. He never recorded again.

And then Johnson disappeared. His style of guitar playing lived on through the thirties and forties, as musicians like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Mance Lipscomb listened to those records and copied his slide technique. Others couldn’t get the sound of those songs and that voice out of their heads. They were driven to find more, to solve the mystery of the man whose affliction had become part of his very name. So they hit

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