Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars, Gary Golio & E.B. Lewis, (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books)
It’s a quite beautiful book, attractively illustrated by E.B. Lewis, who has illustrated over 70 books, and cleverly written by Golio, resulting in a book that is guaranteed to engage the interest of small children. That’s no small feat, given the harshness of Willie Johnson’s life, a man blinded as a child, who lived in poverty and died penniless in the ruins of his burnt-down home.
Golio is a specialist, though, in writing books for children about famous musicians, with books published on Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Rollins, Carlos Santana and Bob Dylan, to name but a few.
Golio, of course, doesn’t get into the miry details of Johnson’s life, instead focusing on the motif of light and darkness, showing how despite the darkness of blindness, Willie Johnson’s gospel musicianship was able to brighten his own life and that of generations after him. Combined with the gorgeous paintings, however, little ones will get a flavour of what life was like back in the 1920s and 1930s.
It’s educational, it’s lovely to look at, and it puts a welcome spotlight on Willie Johnson, who is really only known amongst blues music fans. His songs have been covered by a who’s who of rock stars over the years, and top guitarists, including Eric Clapton, have hailed him as an outstanding slide guitarist – even though he had to play with a penknife.
And, of course, as Dark Was the Night highlights for us – Willie Johnson’s most famous song, Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, made it onto the Voyager 1 space probe’s “golden record,” a collection of some of earth’s best loved music, in the chance it might one day be heard by other galactic lifeforms.
For parents who’d like their children to encounter something of America’s musical heritage, this, really is a must-buy. Highly recommended.