Personalities | Blind Willie Johnson | Twenties | Jazz & Blues

(Vocals, guitar, c. 1902–47)

Texas-born Willie Johnson, a purveyor of sacred material who would probably have been appalled at being categorized as a ‘blues’ artist, was blinded at the age of seven when his stepmother threw lye in his face after being beaten by his father. He sang in a hoarse, declamatory voice and his fretwork combined tonal purity and pinpoint accuracy (even when using a pocket-knife slide) with an emotional intensity unsurpassed by any acoustic guitarist, regardless of genre.

His masterpiece, the instrumental ‘Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)’, invokes soul-chilling existential dread, and was once described by guitarist Ry Cooder as ‘the most transcendent piece in all American music’. Other works – ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed’, ‘Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning’ – are testament to his faith and the resolute certainty with which he held it. Johnson, who recorded 30 sides for Columbia in 1927–30, died after contracting pneumonia, having spent a night sleeping in wet clothes after his house burned down.

Styles & Forms | Twenties | Jazz & Blues
Personalities | James P. Johnson | Twenties | Jazz & Blues

Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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