Blind Willie Johnson first recorded this famous song in 1927. Nobody’s Fault But Mine – the need for personal responsibility and making the right choices.
Nobody’s Fault But Mine was first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. The song is a traditional gospel song that is listed in the 1924 Cleveland Library’s Index to Negro Spirituals. Over the years, it has been recorded by a great many musicians, including Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Robben Forde and Eric Bibb. So – choose your favourite version!
It was also famously covered by Led Zeppelin for their 1976 album Presence. They used some of Johnson’s lyrics, but excluded the overtly religious passages and added several verses of their own. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant recorded it again in their 1994 album, No Quarter. Record producer Rick Rubin called the Led Zeppelin version, “A traditional blues, twisted through a trippy, psychedelic filter. They played with such precision, doing these odd arrangements that sound like loose jams but are really choreographed.”
In its more original setting in the hands of Blind Willie Johnson, the song is particularly interesting. The song is basically about personal responsibility – the singer has a bible at home and his mother and father taught him how to read it. So if he doesn’t and he ends up “with my soul be lost”, then he recognizes there’s nobody to blame but himself.
Nobody’s fault but mine, Nobody’s fault but mine
If I don’t read it my soul be lost
I have a bible in my home, I have a bible in my home
If I don’t read it my soul be lost
My mother she taught me how to read, Mother she taught me how to read
If I don’t read it my soul be lost, nobody’s fault but mine
Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t born blind; rather his blindness was likely the result of a tragic, avoidable accident. When Willie was seven, his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man. The stepmother then picked up a handful of lye and threw it, and it caught the face, not of Willie’s father, but of young Willie. The rest of Johnson’s life was no less tragic. Poor all his life, he spent his time preaching and singing in the streets of several Texas cities. In 1945, his home burned to the ground and Willie ended up living in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a wet bed in the late summer Texas heat. He lived like this until he contracted malaria and died on September 18, 1945.
Given his circumstances, you might excuse Willie Johnson for putting the blame for whatever short-comings he had on the circumstances that life threw at him. Instead he sings that it’s “nobody’s fault but mine”. You don’t often get that sort of honesty these days. For sure we all realize that some people get less than a fair deal in life; in fact, our world is full of injustice. Inequalities of all sorts, not least in education, put people at risk and are at the root of many of our social problems. But Willie Johnson realized that despite the racism, discrimination, poverty and disability he suffered, nothing took away his own personal responsibility. In the end, there is personal responsibility for ourselves and our actions. If we end up ignoring good advice and making wrong choices, ultimately, “it’s nobody’s fault but mine”.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Dublin to see Bruce Springsteen (the usual high-energy, hughly joyous entertainment that you get from the Boss) and I got to the open air venue nice and early to get a prime spot. As I waited I chatted to one of the promoting company’s security officials. Lovely guy. Who told me that this would be an easy night for him and his colleagues – just look around, he said, at the sort of people come to a gig like this. Very different, he said, from the event two weeks ago in Phoenix Park. A big rap/hip-hop event that attracted about 45,000 people, starring – and here he mentioned a load of names I’m afraid I didn’t recognize, apart from one Snoop Dogg. Anyway, my friend told me that they had forcibly to eject over 570 people from the gig, that there were numerous stabbings, including nine serious stabbings and three fatalities, one from a knife wound. He pointed to the drug culture surrounding this scene and the violence inherent to some of the music. Rather shocked, I asked him who was taking responsibility for what had happened – who had fouled up, the promoter, the police, the city council – who was to blame? My new friend was in no doubt, notwithstanding my typical liberal response – in the end of the day, he said, it’s each of those young people’s own personal responsibility. They have a choice he said.
Psychiatrist and best-selling author Scott Peck’s well known book from 1978, The Road Less Travelled, is about what it takes to be a fulfilled human being. For Peck high on the agenda is the unpopular idea of self-discipline, particularly the ideas of delay of gratification and dedication to truth. And key to all of this, according to Peck, is accepting responsibility for oneself and one’s actions.
In the Hebrew bible, a man called Joshua once asked a group of people, who had within living memory been fleeing slaves, to “choose” whether they were going to serve the God that had rescued them from the oppression of being Pharoah’s brick-makers, or just fit in with the world around them. For all of us there come points in life where we need to take responsibility for the way things are going and make the right choice. To simply drift on blaming everybody and everything else for our problems is the road to nowhere. Better to face up to the fact that “it’s nobody’s fault but mine”.
Mavis Staples & the Blind Boys of Alabama with Nobody’s Fault but Mine