Blind Willie Johnson: “The ferocity he brought to the guitar was unheard of previously.”
Michael Corcoran is an award-winning Austin, Texas-based journalist who has been a serious music critic since he was a teenager. He’s plied his trade in Hawaii and California, and since 1984 has written for the Austin Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman, Texas Monthly and Rolling Stone. He’s won numerous awards, and has been nominated for two Grammys in the album notes and historical album categories for Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams (Dust-to-Digital). Music has been a life-long passion – he told me, “I was 8 when the Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. A little too young to start a band the next day, but the perfect age to start listening. Some of my younger friends had Kiss, I had the Beatles. Then I got completely into the Monkees, who were less a band than a vehicle for great songs from Carole King, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, Boyce & Hart and so on.”
Corcoran has written a number of books, including, notably his 2017 All Over the Map, (University of North Texas Press), which has been described as a “musical waltz across Texas and is an illustrated collection of profiles of Texas music pioneers, most underrated or overlooked. “It started,” he says, “as a newspaper article for the Chicago Tribune in advance of South by Southwest. The assignment was to describe what makes Texas music special. I’m not from Texas. I came here from Hawaii in 1984, so I had a lot of catching up to do. But sometimes an outsider gets a clearer picture than the folks who’ve been entrenched. Texas has a lot of swagger. It’s where the cowboy movies – popular with blacks as well as whites – were set and so the music tapped into that Old West pioneer spirit.”
Why, I asked him, is Texas so formative for American music? Is it the geography, the people, the history, just what is it?
“Texas was the first state to have large populations of both African-Americans and Hispanics. They worked side by side in the fields, along with whites. Guitars came up from Mexico. It was a musical melting pot. Also, the Czech and German immigrants, who started coming in the 1850s, built these huge dancehalls like back home. Musicians had to play loud to get the people dancing, so Texans were the first to play electric guitars in blues (T-Bone Walker), jazz (Charlie Christian) and country (Bob Dunn of the Musical Brownies). More than anything else, the dancing culture influenced the music.”
Corcoran suggested a while ago, provocatively, that Texas, not Mississippi, is the true home of the blues. What, I asked him is the case for that? He told me that this observation was based on the birth of boogie-woogie in the lumber camps of East Texas after the Civil War. “Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first star of guitar blues, recording three years before Charlie Patton and the other Mississippi Delta guys. A lot of things happened in Texas before anywhere else. But re-thinking this “home of the blues” claim, I’d have to say that the blues were born wherever black people were slaves – which was all over the south. The blues, like gospel, grew out of the Negro spirituals that the slaves would sing in the fields to lift their spirits.”
He has also suggested that maybe 90% of the music that came after the 1920s can be traced back to three Texas artists – Blind Willie Johnson, Arizona Dranes, and Washington Phillips. In support of this, Corcoran told me, “Blind Willie was the first true guitar hero, like the first basketball player who could dunk. Jimmy Page is a direct descendent. Eric Clapton, Duane Allman. Blind Lemon, a lively guitarist and singer, was playing house party dance music, when Johnson was making his guitar the star. Dranes brought a rhythmic, secular pound to gospel music. That’s the original R&B, which became rock n’ roll. Then, Washington Phillips can be credited with introducing introspection to song-writing on gospel songs that were often more about the realities of life. Gospel music was not known for honesty until Denomination Blues or The Church Needs Good Deacons.
Corcoran is currently researching and writing a book coming out in Spring 2020, entitled Ghost Notes, which is basically a sequel to All Over the Map, but with more context. “I’ve woven my research on Johnson, Dranes and Phillips to better reflect what it was like being poor and black in Texas in the 1920s. The church was not just a spiritual sanctuary. I have a section on blues piano, featuring Amos Milburn and Charles Brown, plus Milton Brown and the birth of Western Swing, Roky Erickson, Sippie Wallace. That’s the beauty of Texas music – so many styles and genres, but with the same underlying purpose of coming up with some new stuff that’s going to blow people away.”
Blind Willie Johnson is one of the artists about which Corcoran has written extensively. Johnson recorded for Columbia Records from 1927 until 1930, thirty tracks in total, with ten each recorded in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta. Johnson’s recordings were very successful, outselling even Bessie Smith, and his guitar playing was the inspiration for a many of the Delta blues artists, including Robert Johnson, whose songs and playing style became foundational for later electric blues and rock’n’roll. So Blind Willie casts a long shadow.
Johnson, however, restricted his singing to gospel songs, unlike, say, Blind Willie McTell, who sang the blues along with sacred songs. “His raspy evangelical bark and dramatic guitar,” says Corcoran, “were designed to draw in milling, mulling masses on street corners, not to charm casual roots rock fans decades later.”
Corcoran contributed extensive liner notes for the 2016 Alligator Records Blind Willie Johnson tribute album (God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson), and he has more to offer in his forthcoming book. But it’s fair to say that he feels that there have been more than a few misunderstandings and false stories about Willie Johnson’s life.
“Just finding his death certificate cleared up a lot of misinformation, like that he died in 1945, not ’49. Through the years I’ve found that the most unreliable information comes through interviews. The person being interviewed tends to puff up their own importance and that’s what happened when Sam Charters found Blind Willie’s widow Angeline in the 1950s. Almost all the misinformation, including how he died, came from her. She even claimed to be the female voice on her husband’s records, but we later found out it was another wife, Willie B. Harris.”
Corcoran questions, for example, Angeline’s story of Johnson’s death. She said that her husband died from pneumonia in 1949 after sleeping on wet newspapers after a fire had burned down their home. “We didn’t get wet, but just the dampness, you know, and then he’s singing and his veins opened and everything, and it just made him sick.” She says she took him to the hospital but “They wouldn’t accept him. He’d have been living today if they’d accepted him. ’Cause he’s blind. Blind folks has a hard time – he can’t get in the hospital.”
Corcoran quotes blues scholar Mack McCormick, whom he regarded as “probably the greatest music researcher of our time,” as concluding that such a scenario was “highly unlikely.” McCormick worked in a Houston emergency room in the Jim Crow era and has suggested that Johnson wouldn’t have been turned away. In addition, Michael Corcoran makes the point that it would have been almost unthinkable for Johnson and his wife not to have been taken in by the congregation of their church after the disaster of the fire.
I wonder, however, if Angeline’s story of her husband being turned away from a hospital in 1945 is really not to be trusted. A 2014 paper by Kerri L. Hunkele of the University of New Hampshire (Segregation in United States Healthcare: From Reconstruction to Deluxe Jim Crow) highlights the fact that across the South, Jim Crow medical laws hindered access to medical care for blacks. White nurses were not to treat African American males and hospital facilities were segregated, including entrances and waiting rooms. Even by the end of the ‘40s, the ratio of African American physicians to the Black population remained at one to over 3,600, resulting in real problems for African American males, who could be refused by White doctors or would not be able to see certain doctors because of the all-White nursing staffs. In Mississippi, a law also meant that medical treatment would be available to African Americans only after the White patients were all treated.
With all this in mind, Hunkele says that “scholarship on hospital segregation emphasizes the severe health consequences suffered by individuals who could not gain admittance to White-only facilities or overcrowded Jim Crow wards in biracial hospitals…All of these problems arose because of the Jim Crow Laws, which hindered blacks’ abilities to access proper medical treatment.” (On this, further see Karen Kruse, Deluxe Jim Crow: Civil Rights and American Health Policy, 1935-1954, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011). All this, it seems to me, lends veracity to Angeline’s account of Blind Willie Johnson’s death.
But there’s a lot about Johnson’s life that we don’t know. What we do know, says Michael Corcoran, is “that for a brief period of time, Johnson was a recording star, one of the most popular gospel “race” artists of his era.” And that his influence has been enormous, his songs covered down through the years by Rev Gary Davis and Fred McDowell, but also by more recent rock bands like the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and the White Stripes. Eric Clapton called his slide work on It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine “probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear,” and Jack White of The White Stripes thinks Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground is “the greatest example of slide guitar ever recorded.”
And then, of course, there is the small matter of being launched into space. Johnson has the distinction of having one of his songs feature on a special recording sent aboard the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 to head beyond the outer solar system into deep space – the Voyager Golden Record also contains music by Beethovan, Mozart and Stravinsky.
Willie Johnson’s songs were gospel songs – he sang out of his Christian faith. And yet these songs continued to be covered and are still being sung and performed and appreciated by believers and non-believers alike. I asked Corcoran why this is.
“The ferocity he brought to the guitar was unheard of previously. Plus, his most popular songs – Motherless Children, If I Had My Way, Nobody’s Fault But Mine aren’t overtly religious. Lyrics keep a lot of fans away from gospel, but Blind Willie’s music sounds secular as hell.”
To be fair, however, Johnson’s songs are overtly gospel – you only have to listen to Jesus is Coming Soon, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning, Sweeter as the Days Roll By or Latter Rain, to appreciate the depth of religious passion that drove Willie Johnson. Johnson was a Pentecostal – I wondered if that had a particular effect on his music making and singing. “It is interesting,” says Corcoran, “that his natural voice was so good. Every other gravel-voiced singer, like Tom Waits, takes that approach because their regular voice sucks. But since Johnson did almost all his singing on street corners for tips, he needed a gimmick to draw the milling crowds towards him. His mentor Blind Madkin Butler taught him that. Blind Willie recorded more songs without the false bass.” If you listen to Johnson’s songs, you’ll hear that he actually has a fine singing voice as opposed to the gravelly rasping you get on some of his songs – e.g. Let Your Light Shine On Me.
Johnson’s Pentecostalism comes out specifically in his Latter Rain, which is often misquoted, largely because most people don’t understand the origin of the term “latter rain.” This refers to the ancient prophet of Israel, Joel, who talked about God sending the early and the latter rain on the crops (Joel 2:23, 28). Joel 2 was quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost in the New Testament, as foretelling the outpouring of the Spirit, and Pentecostals – whose movement had started in 1901 – went on to interpret the “early rain” as the initial outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in the 1st century and the “latter rain” as referring to their own movement of Spirit blessing.
I asked Michael if he had a couple of favourite Willie Johnson songs, and to name a favourite cover of a Willie Johnson song.
“I think God Moves On the Water is an incredible achievement for one man and a guitar. Mack McCormick said that Madkin Butler wrote it and taught it to Willie. I love the sentiment that arrogance sunk the Titanic, that God should get all the glory. Of course, another favorite is Dark Was the Night, though it’s been used in so many soundtracks it’s become old to me.” Then in terms of a favourite cover: “I don’t think anyone’s done a Blind Willie song better, but Cowboy Junkies came closest with Jesus Is Coming Soon from the God Don’t Never Change tribute album Alligator put out a couple years ago. I like Tom Waits’ version of Soul of a Man a lot, too. I wrote the liner notes, but it was more as an excuse to hit the road for more research. There’s not much out there to be found, so every little new bit of info is precious.”
For my own part, yes, Dark was the Night is an incredible performance by Johnson and the slide playing quite awesome. But Nobody’s Fault But Mine (“and that’s one of the few songs he recorded that he almost certainly wrote,” says Corcoran) is a song I always find remarkable, given Johnson’s circumstances of being blind, black and poor in the early decades of the last century in the American South. Life was unremittingly hard, so the sense of personal responsibility, despite all the adverse circumstances, is quite remarkable. But then, Willie Johnson is a quite remarkable man and musician, whose influence, as Michael Corcoran has emphasized for us, has been immense and still continues to this day.
[Check out our piece on the Blind Willie Johnson tribute album]
Thanks to Michael Corcoran for taking to time to discuss with me Texas music and Blind Willie Johnson.