He left a massive imprint on the blues, but little is known about Blind Willie Johnson
Originally published September 28, 2003.
When Jack White of the red-hot White Stripes announced "It's good to be in Texas, the home of Blind Willie Johnson," at Stubb's in June, most in the soldout crowd likely had never heard of the gospel blues singer/guitarist from Marlin who pioneered a ferocity that still lives in modern rock. We have become used to being saluted as the home of T-Bone Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others. But who is this Blind Willie Johnson?
The first songs he recorded, on a single day in 1927, are more familiar. "Nobody's Fault But Mine" was covered by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton did "Motherless Children," Bob Dylan turned Johnson's "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" into "In My Time of Dying" on his 1962 debut LP and "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down" has been appropriated by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Staple Singers.
Johnson's haunting masterpiece "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)" was chosen for an album placed aboard Voyager 1 in 1977 on its journey to the ends of the universe. Foreseeing an extraterrestrial intercept, astronomer Carl Sagan and his staff put together "Sounds of Earth" -- including ancient chants, the falling rain, a beating heart, Beethoven, Bach and Blind Willie.
Should aliens happen upon the spacecraft and, with the record player provided, listen to that eerie, moaning, steel-sliding memorial to the Crucifixion, they will know almost as much about the mysterious Blind Willie Johnson as we do.
On Monday, Martin Scorsese will introduce Johnson to Americans in the second episode of his seven-part PBS series, "The Blues." The installment, directed by Wim Wenders, is named for Johnson's " Soul of a Man," a song that links a trio of protagonists -- Johnson, Skip James and J.B. Lenoir -- as artists driven to create amid abject hardships. With wife Willie B. Harris' soprano sweetening Johnson's coarse bass falsetto on the 1930 recording, the duo demands an answer to the unanswerable: "I want somebody to tell me/Just what is the soul of a man."
Beyond five recording dates from 1927-1930 that yielded 30 tracks, the singer remains a biographical question mark. Only one picture of him, seated at a piano holding a guitar with a tin cup on its neck, has ever been found. A search on the Internet or a browse of libraries and bookstores reveals the slightest information on this musical pioneer, and almost all of it is wrong.
Months on the trail of the man whose music rang with an intensity previously unrecorded turn up a living daughter and a death certificate -- and little else. Finding witnesses who knew Johnson is about as easy as interviewing folks who lived through World War I. Many are dead or too old to remember.
Or, like Sam Faye Kelly, the only child of Blind Willie and Willie B. Harris, they're too young to realize what was going on six, seven decades ago. "I remember him singing here in the kitchen and reciting from the Bible," said Kelly, 72. "But I was just a little girl when he went away."
And while the death certificate corrects some previously accepted misinformation (he was born in 1897 near Brenham, not 1902 in Marlin, and died in 1945, not 1949, in Beaumont), the document doesn't tell you how he lived from 1930, when his recording career ended, until his death. It doesn't tell you how many times he was married and how many kids he fathered. It doesn't tell you how he learned to play such a wicked bottleneck guitar or which Pentecostal preachers he modeled his singing voice after. It doesn't verify the widespread legend that Willie was blinded when a stepmother threw lye in his face at age 7 to avenge a beating from his father. The certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis as a contributing factor. But when it also lists blindness as a contributor, the coroner's thoroughness becomes suspect.
Unquestioned is the opinion that Johnson is one of the most influential guitarists in music history. "Anybody who's ever played the bottleneck guitar with some degree of accomplishment is quoting Blind Willie to this day," said Austin slide guitarist Steve James. "He's the apogee." An instinctive virtuoso, Johnson made his guitar moan, slur and sing, often finishing lyrics for him, and throughout the years, Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ry Cooder and many more have expressed a debt to the sightless visionary.
And yet, the 1993 double-disc "Complete Blind Willie Johnson" has sold only about 15,000 copies on Sony/Legacy. No doubt, more than half of those sales were to guitarists.
1930s Mississippi Delta blues man Robert Johnson grew into a full-blown rock icon in part because of the mysteries of his life and death, but Willie Johnson has not benefited from his enigmatic existence. Even though his guitar-playing inspired a host of Delta blues men, from Johnson and Son House to Muddy Waters, Blind Willie refused to sing the blues, that style of pre-war music preferred by collectors and historians. He sang only religious songs, which explains a big part of his relative obscurity. His gruff evangelical bellow and otherworldly guitar were designed to draw in milling mulling masses on street corners, not to charm casual roots rock fans decades later.
When word got out late last year through the community of music historians and record collectors that Blind Willie had a daughter who was still living in Marlin, 28 miles southeast of Waco, there was a collective gasp of hope that new information would surface. Maybe there was a box with pictures, letters or gospel programs that would fill in the huge gaps. Maybe Willie B. Harris had told her daughter details about her father, like how he lost his sight and where he learned his songs.
The discovery of an heir also stirred the interest of musical estate managers, such as Steve LaVere of Mississippi's Delta Haze company, who visited Kelly in November. In his role managing the estate of Robert Johnson, LaVere has aggressively collected back royalties from Columbia Records and such performers as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. "It's all about getting the pennies to roll in your direction -- we're talking about eight cents a record (in songwriter royalties)," LaVere said. "Eventually, the pennies turn into dollars."
But when LaVere left Marlin to return to his offices in Greenwood, Miss., he didn't have a signed contract that would give him the right to represent the estate of Blind Willie Johnson. "I was a little miffed," he said. "I thought we had laid out the groundwork on the phone and would be able to sign a deal, but some people just don't know what they have, what it's worth, and they'd rather do nothing than feel like they might get cheated."
Kelly said she just didn't want to rush into anything. "You know, old people don't like to sign stuff right away," she said as she maneuvered her wheelchair through the cramped quarters of 817 Hunter St., where Blind Willie lived with Kelly's mother in the early '30s. It's a four-room box with a sagging roof and walls warped by the heat.
Kelly said that she's never received a penny from her father's music.
But first she has to fly the flag, said lawyer William Krasilovsky, who wrote "This Business of Music," the industry bible. "You say, 'Here we are. We represent the heirs of Blind Willie Johnson.' " Until an estate is established, there's no place to send royalties that may be due.
"I guess I should hire someone to see about getting some money for the family," Kelly said. "I need to make a move here."
"Z'rontre!" Kelly called out to her great-grandson, her voice cutting through the loud cartoons watched in the living room by two kids lying on the floor. "Come here and get Mama that box of papers." A little boy bounded in from the bedroom and climbed up on a chair to reach a rectangular plastic box. "This boy's only three years old and he can do everything for me, even fetch me some water," said Kelly, who's stricken with arthritis and other ailments. "He's my legs."
She pulled out a few fragile documents, including a birth certificate which says that she was born June 23, 1931, to Willie Johnson, occupation listed as "musician," and a mother whose maiden name was Willie B. Hays.
Kelly said she remembers her father staying with her mother until she was about seven or eight years old. That would put him in Marlin until at least 1938. But two years after Kelly's birth, her mother had a daughter, Dorothy, with a man named Joe Henry, according to Kelly. Six years later came Earline, from another father. Kelly recalls that her parents had remained married even as Willie B. Harris was having kids with other men and Blind Willie was drifting from street corner to church to train station for months at a time.
"We was working people, see," said Kelly. "My mother understood that my father had to leave Marlin to make money. She worked seven days a week as a nurse. I'd say, 'Mama, please stay home today' and she'd say, 'But I gotta work' and I'd understand."
During the era in which Blind Willie recorded, artists didn't expect royalties. They took whatever the labels paid them, usually around $25 to $50 per record, and the music they recorded was considered work for hire. The labels claimed all rights. "They had just made a record," Columbia field recorder Frank Walker, who helmed Johnson's remarkably fruitful 1927 session, said in an interview in the '60s. "To them that was the next best thing to being president of the United States."
Johnson's first 78 rpm -- "If I Had My Way" backed with "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time" (titled "Motherless Children" by Clapton) -- sold a remarkable 15,000 copies, even more than Bessie Smith's recordings of the day. By 1930, however, the Depression dried up demand for gritty country blues/gospel, and Blind Willie's recording career was history. But as was his nature, Johnson kept on the move, playing "from Maine to the Mobile Bay," according to what his touring mate Blind Willie McTell told Alan Lomax in a 1940s interview.
"People recalled hearing him at times over KTEM in Temple and on a Sunday-morning church service broadcast by KPLC in Lake Charles," said Houston-based music historian Mack McCormick. "He left memories in Corpus Christi during WWII when there was a fear about Nazi submarines prowling the Gulf of Mexico. Someone must have told him submarines often listened to radio stations to triangulate their position. He went on the air with new verses to one of his songs, probably 'God Moves on the Water' about the Titanic, offering grace to his audience, then followed with a dire warning to the crew of any listening U-boat with 'Can't Nobody Hide from God.' "
Blind Willie's music was revealed to a new generation of country blues enthusiasts (including Bob Dylan) with the 1952 release of the Harry Smith anthology "American Folk Music," which included Johnson's "John the Revelator." The " Blind Willie Johnson" album came out on Folkways in 1957, with a key detail wrong. Second wife Angeline Johnson, who was tracked down by music historian Samuel Charters in 1953, was credited with the backing vocals performed by first wife Harris.
This error was uncorrected until the mid-'70s, when a Dallas music collector named Dan Williams drove down to Marlin to see if he could find anyone who knew Blind Willie. "I approached a group of elderly black people near the town square and one of them said he was related to Blind Willie's ex-wife, the one who sang on his records, and I thought I was going to meet Angeline Johnson," Williams recalls. "Nobody knew anything about a Willie B. Harris."
After hearing Harris sing along to the Blind Willie records and talk about details of the recording sessions that only those present would know, Williams ascertained that she was, indeed, the background singer. "She talked about meeting Blind Willie McTell at the last session in Atlanta (April 20, 1930) and I did some research and found out that, sure enough, McTell recorded at the same studio the same day."
Charters made the correction, crediting Harris, in his notes to the 1993 boxed set, but repeated Angeline Johnson's contention that she married Blind Willie in Dallas in 1927. There is no record of such a marriage in Dallas County or in the county clerks offices of Falls, McLennan, Bell, Milam, Jefferson or Robertson counties. But then, neither is there evidence, besides Kelly's birth certificate listing her as legitimate, that Blind Willie and Willie B. were ever married.
Floating in space
Researching history about long dead blues men is fueled by random payoffs, much like slot machines and singles bars. You run your fingers down the pages of big, dusty books for hours and then you find a bit of information, a bit of new evidence, and it all becomes worth it.
But dozens of hours in search of details on the life of Blind Willie Johnson resulted in almost zero positive reinforcements. A five-hour drive to Beaumont yielded the slightest new info; a city directory shows that in 1944, a Rev. W.J. Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forest St. That's the address listed on Blind Willie's death certificate as his last residence.
Besides the entry on the death certificate, there is no evidence that Blind Willie Johnson is buried in Beaumont's "colored" Blanchette Cemetery, a seemingly untended field littered with broken tombstones and overrun with weeds. If Johnson had a headstone, it's gone now. When the cemetery floods, a man who lives across the street said, sometimes wooden coffins can be seen floating away among the debris. There is no peaceful rest, no solitude for the ages, for the migrant musician.
His music, meanwhile, continues its journey to the galaxy's back yard.
Ry Cooder, who based his desolate soundtrack to "Paris, Texas" on "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)," described it as "The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music." On that Voyager 1 disc is hard evidence that we are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal, that we do indeed have souls that live long after we're buried.