Dark Was The Night
I first heard Blind Willie Johnson on a Blues compilation tape I bought from WH Smith in The Grosvenor Centre, Northampton. The track was ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bad’. This would have been 1994. Whilst I thought it was a great track and I knew that Led Zeppelin were into him, I’d bought the tape because of another Johnson (Lonnie) being seventeen at the time, I was into flashier guitar players.
Over the years, I would see his name appear in various magazines; usually other musicians talking about him (a Ben Harper interview springs to mind also Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai) and then in 2002, whilst in New York, I bought a CD, released on Yahzoo in 1989: ‘Praise God I’m Satisfied’, which I still own. It has beautiful painting on the cover of Blind Willie Johnson playing in the street: his primary source of income and where he performed most. The sleeve notes were really detailed too (always important). Track two was ‘Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground). It sounds like nothing else he ever recorded and like nothing else I have ever before or since. Beautiful in its simplicity (I read that he meant it as an evocation of the ‘Crucifixion’) exquisitely pitched slide guitar and moaned vocal phrasing. It has an amorphous feel, out of time, hanging in the air…
In late 2018, I was working two jobs to make ends meet: early starts, late nights; trouble sleeping...Things were pretty dark...I would lay awake, headphones on and listen to Blind Willie Johnson and somewhere deep in his lament for Jesus, I found something to hold on to.
When Nasa launched Voyager 1 in 1977, two gold discs were placed on board; containing examples of life and culture on Earth. Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground) was one of the pieces of music. Blind Willie Johnson was an astonishing musician, a singular performer and artist who never really found lasting commercial success (he did out sell Bessie Smith in 1927) to me, his music is for all time. Voyager 1 is still transmitting.