On Good Friday, we are thinking again about a couple of Blind Willie Johnson songs. And in case you’ve ever wondered why this day which commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ could possibly be called good – the Oxford English Dictionary says that “good” refers to a day of religious observance, noting that the term first appeared in the 13th century; so it effectively means “holy”: i.e. Holy Friday.
Perhaps Willie Johnson’s most famous song is Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground. Of his 29 recorded songs, it’s the one that made it into the illustrious company of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Stravinsky on the “Golden Record” on board the 1997 unmanned Voyager space probe, intended for the ears of any intelligent extraterrestrial life form who might come upon it.
The song is an old sacred hymn, which, In Johnson’s hands, becomes an evocation of Christ’s solitary experience in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, where his anticipation of what was likely to lie before him produced sweat which “became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” The Gospel of Luke is describing a condition we know as hematohidrosis, where capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture, causing them to exude blood, which occurring under conditions of extreme physical or emotional stress.
Despite the fact that you really can’t hear the words in Johnson’s recording of the song, it is quite graphic. Johnson, more so than on other songs, moans and groans his way through the song as he plays his eerie slide guitar. Johnson was something of a master on slide guitar, was able to get great tone out of simply using a pocketknife as his slide, and the combination of his guitar work and the moaning are enough to take us into that moment of anguish with Christ in the Garden, prior to his impending execution.
Crucifixion was a brutal means of execution, used widely by the Romans to punish offenders and dissuade others from law-breaking. The victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden beam and left to hang, perhaps for several days, until eventual death from exhaustion and asphyxiation. It was slow, painful, gruesome, humiliating, and public. Anticipation of such a death would certainly account for the extreme anxiety that brought on hematohidrosis.
The lyrics of the song are sombre and challenging (see this post), but Johnson clearly felt that the music and his mournful moaning were enough to take us into that moment of anguish with Christ in the Garden, prior to his impending execution.
The other Willie Johnson song relevant to Good Friday is (I Know) His Blood Can Make Me Whole, a traditional spiritual song he recorded in 1927. Barbecue Bob had recorded the song earlier in the year. The song talks about “touching the hem” of Jesus’s “garment,” a reference to the gospel story of the woman who had suffered from haemorrhages for many years who was healed simply by touching Jesus’s clothes. The song, though, is about how faith in Jesus’s death can bring redemption and healing. Johnson does not shy away from presenting the challenge of what he felt was the central element of his faith.
Check out this great version by Martin Swamps