Blind Willie Johnson’s music gets to you, it works its way inside you and asks you big questions about yourself and the way the world is.
God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson is quite simply this year’s best album – and there have been some very fine ones, including those from Luther Dickinson, Mavis Staples and Lucinda Williams.
Produced by Jeffrey Gaskill, ten years in the making and as a result of a successful crowd funding campaign, it features a stellar cast including Tom Waits, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Lucinda Williams, Maria McKee, Luther Dickinson, the Cowboy Junkies, Sinead O’Connor and Rikki Lee Jones. Each song, with the possible exception of Jones’s version of Dark Was the Night, is outstanding, the artists’ interpretations doing full justice to the grit, passion and commitment of Blind Willie Johnson.
Johnson was a gospel bluesman who recorded 29 songs in five sessions for Columbia Records from 1927 to 1930 and who was renowned for his slide guitar – Eric Clapton called him the finest slide guitarist he knew – which he played with a brass ring or a knife. He alternated his tenor voice with a low growl or sometimes just a moan. His haunting gospel blues have endured over the years, covered by a host of artists from Led Zeppelin to Tom Jones to Ry Cooder to the Grateful Dead.
Johnson had a difficult life, as we might expect for a disabled black man living in the Southern States in the early decades of the 20th century. Details of his life are sketchy – we don’t even know exactly where he is buried (for a fascinating examination of this see Shane Ford’s Shine a Light), but he lived in poverty and hardship, mostly busking and preaching on the streets of Texas. He died pitifully, living in the ashes of his burnt down house in 1945, having contracted malaria.
And yet, his legacy of songs live on. Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, possibly his most famous song, is one of the music tracks on the Voyager Golden Record, on the unmanned Voyager Project spaceship sent into space in 1977. It takes its place alongside music by Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. Quite what any extra terrestrials might make of Willie Johnson’s eerie slide guitar and moans on Dark Was the Night is anybody’s guess!
Johnson’s songs unashamedly confess and celebrate his Christian faith. (For more on Johnson’s life and faith see The Gospel According to the Blues ). For Johnson, God was a reality with whom we all have to deal – he pulls no punches on God Don’t Never Change and Can’t Nobody Hide from God. He reminds each of us of our responsibility for our own shortcomings in It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine and he highlights the hardship of life in Lord I Just Can’t Keep from Crying. He gives us the answer to the problem of human frailty in I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole, and he looks forward to a better world in Jesus is Coming Soon and Bye and Bye I’m Going to See the King. The songs can sound threatening, ominous, gritty – but they can also be joyous and inspirational, when Johnson celebrates his faith in songs like Sweeter As the Years Go By or Let Your Light Shine on Me. This is earthy, blood and guts, committed religion.
And it needed to be for Johnson with the life he led. He had to know there was something more than the trials and difficulties he had to go through; he had to trust that God was, somehow, on his side, and that there would be a better day ahead. That’s why he sang, “keep your lamps trimmed and burning, see what the Lord has done,” and “let your light shine on me.”
For those of us cosseted in comfortable 21st century Western lifestyles, Johnson’s music is a stark reminder of the harshness of life for many people in today’s world – motherless children, the poor, the disabled, those caught up in war, the sick – and shows how all this can be faced with fortitude, courage, even joy. In You’ll Need Somebody on Your Bond, Johnson reflects on both the sorrows of life and the way to deal with them:
“I came to Jesus as I was, weary and wounded and sad.
found in Him a resting place and he has made me glad.”
For Johnson, these words could never be trite, given the reality of his own life.
So to this new album, God Don’t Never Change. Tom Waits gets us right into the spirit of the songs with his raw vocals and some spirited guitar picking with Soul of a Man. Lucinda Williams contributes a couple of songs, notably a sparse Nobody’s Fault But Mine with some tasty slide guitar and a little Johnson-esque moaning. The slide guitar playing gets take up a notch as you might expect by Derek Trucks on the joyful Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning. (Check out our post on this song here).
Then suddenly we have Willie Johnson himself rasping his way into our consciousness as the Cowboy Junkies start up Jesus Is Coming Soon. They cleverly sample Johnson’s voice for the chorus on the song and it works fantastically well. After the pleasure of the Blind Boys of Alabama, with Jason Isbell on slide on Motherless Children, we have the surprise of the package – Sinead O’Connor, right in the middle of these top notch Americana artists, treats us to a spine-tingling Trouble Soon Be Over. With some exquisite backing vocals and a little guitar and percussion, O’Connor beautifully captures the dichotomy in the song of wrestling with the struggles of life and the hope of redemption.
More slide guitar, courtesy of Luther Dickinson, who is no stranger to inspirational gospel material on Bye and Bye I’m Going to See the King. Then, after Waits’ and Williams’ second contributions we have the delightful Let Your Light Shine On Me with Maria McKee. With a little guitar, some church organ and some nice backing vocals, McKee’s interpretation is glorious, particularly as the song grows and adds some rocking piano and McKee belts out “I know I got religion and I know I ain’t ashamed.” Ricki Lee Jones rounds off the 11 songs with Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, giving us the benefit of the lyrics about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Johnson had just played slide guitar and moaned.
These are not trivial songs. They’re about life, trial, hardship, faith, death and eternity. Big subjects. Johnson’s music gets to you, it works its way inside you and asks you big questions about yourself and the way the world is. His music matters. That’s why this album is so important. And it’s why each of these artists has participated in the project and has produced such outstanding work.
And it’s why you should go get yourself a copy of the album without delay. Better still, start listening to Blind Willie Johnson yourself.