Blind Willie Johnson was born (sighted) on 22nd January 1897. He features amongst my blues heroes although he played both spirituals as well as Blues. In the picture to the left he is seen with a twelve string, which as you might imagine gives a bigger more harmonious sound, but he will be better remembered for his slide playing.
I don’t know if it was the reason but as he spent a lot of time playing on the street, a twelve string would have been significantly louder than the conventional six. He must have been well established when this picture was taken, twelve string guitars are quite expensive.
He produced a series of bluesy gospel recordings in 1920s and 1930s that combined virtuoso slide guitar, rough, powerful vocals, and songs that as often as not told of an angry God wreaking vengeance on a sinful world.
Although Johnson recorded exclusively religious music, the gritty feel of his voice and guitar are the equal of any country blues artist recorded during his time. (Like Blind Lemon Jefferson for example, I don’t know if they ever bumped into each other, so to speak.)
Willie Johnson was born on a farm near Marlin Texas. His mother died when he was about four years old, and his father George Johnson remarried. It isn’t clear how Willie became blind, he wasn’t blind at birth – obviously there was some sort of horrific event very early in his life, the reasons vary depending on whom you ask – a pan of lye* being thrown, the side effect of borrowing someone else’s glasses, watching a solar eclipse…and so on.
*Lye – sometimes referred to as ‘lye salt’, a corrosive cleaner – as in, ‘lye salt in my gravy’, mentioned in ‘Mean Woman Blues’ by Elmore James.
When he was only six or seven, his father built him a cigar box guitar. It is not known who taught him to play, but he is said to have picked up his rough false bass singing style from yet another blind gospel singer in Marlin named Madkin Butler. I believe that a really ragged rough growl was traditionally favoured by some gospel singers to reflect the voice of a wrathful God.
By the time Johnson had reached his teens he was singing and playing guitar in the streets of Marlin, summer and winter alike. (Been there dudes; playing in the street not Marlin!) In 1925 he was living in Hearne, Texas where his father did farm work. George would drive Willie into town each morning, where he would find a place under one of the awnings on the main street and perform. Hearne’s local economy was good and Willie made good money there. It was so good that Blind Lemon Jefferson, the first great star of recorded country blues, would play the same streets at the same time.
At some point during the next two years Johnson moved to Dallas and was playing the streets there when he met his wife-to-be, Angeline.
Johnson’s first recording date took place later that year on December 3, 1927 for Columbia Records in Dallas. He recorded six tracks, just voice and guitar. His emotional slide playing, like a second vocalist, engaged in a moving call and response with his own singing.
Blind Willie is said to have used a pocket-knife for playing slide; however executed, it possessed great precision. It is even more remarkable considering Texas has no bottleneck or slide guitar tradition – Johnson must have been self-taught.
He sang with two distinct singing voices: one a soft tenor, the other, a seriously growling false bass, (Howlin’ Wolf, about twelve or thirteen years his junior, may well have been influenced by the latter, certainly sounds like it).
Kind of odd, Blind Willie had this hard growling bass on one hand but on the other, a gentle tenor with a smooth harmonious vibrato.
Willie’s first release, in January 1928, was “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole”.
In December 1928 he returned to Dallas to record once again for Columbia.
As the depression deepened and interest in religion surged because of it, Blind Willie Johnson’s popularity jumped, too. He continued to sell around 5000 records annually, but Barbecue Bob’s sales dropped to 2000, and Bessie Smith’s to 3000 (at that time Colombia’s – up until then – two best selling acts).
In 1945 a fire broke out in the Johnson house. It destroyed Willie’s guitar but the family managed to escape unharmed. They slept in the partially ruined home, on soaked mattresses that Angeline covered with newspapers. Willie tossed and turned that night. When he awoke, he was damp and sick, but went out in the streets singing anyway. He developed pneumonia, and within a few days was dying. The local hospital was no help. They wouldn’t accept him because he was blind.
Blind Willie went to meet his maker on September 18th 1945