“It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. He did not articulate a single word. He hummed it and sang it and played it with a bottle-neck that sounded like it was really a razor blade. He was experiencing it and he communicated it extraordinarily, but it was his experience that made it so powerful.” That’s how singer-guitarist David Bromberg describes Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground.”
Blind Willie is probably the best known of all blind Gospel performers. He was born in Texas in 1897. His stepmother blinded him, throwing lye in his face, when he was six, after she was beaten by Willie’s father for cheating on him.
Nobody really knows where he learned to play guitar, but by the 1920s his career was flourishing. He was primarily a street singer — usually with his wife standing by his side.
Despite the success, life was typically hard for blind Gospel musicians: “When the crops were being picked in the fall and late summer, there was some money around. When there wasn’t money around then you had to go to the juke joints. In that part of the country they were called Sookie Jumps, where gambling was going on, drinking was going on — and on a Friday or Saturday night a Sookie Jump in East Texas where they were working could get a little bit dangerous,” says folklorist Kip Lornell.
Blind Willie Johnson died penniless, alone in the ruins of his burnt home, enveloped by darkness. His influence on music however is staggering, “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” is one of a handful of recordings included in the Voyager probes, which are the only man made object to leave our solar system. His album was also used as inspiration and title for a 2009 indie collaborative album that featured the works of The National, Grizzy Bear, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Yo La Tengo, and many others.
The Reverend Gary Davis, was a younger disciple of Blind Willie Johnson’s music. He had developed his own ways to avoid being swindled. David Bromberg, his student and “lead boy” shared this story:
“He would get around Harlem… doing the street singing, however his guitars were constantly being stolen from him, so he always had a pistol and if you walked into the house and he was asleep in the chair he’d pull it on you. As soon as he woke up, the first thing he did was draw a pistol.”
David Bromberg also points out that, “You listen to the phrasing and tone, the phrasing is preaching and that’s the huge difference between black Blues guitar players and white Blues guitar players. White Blues guitar players don’t take a breath and preachers make their notes more important by rest, playing rests. It’s interesting that at his funeral no one even mentioned that he played guitar. They spoke about what a great preacher he was and that was what was important to the congregation which gave him his last rites.”
The Rev. Gary Davis was a remarkable performer: an original and virtuosic guitarist, and a dramatic and often rawly beautiful singer. It was this inflection and timing that influenced the work of Roy Coder, Bob Dylan and countless others after them. But, the basis for all this influence was the reverend’s evangelical mission.