Blind Willie Johnson

In early 1920s Texas, on the streets of Marlin, Blind Willie Johnson used to sit busking, his low moaning voice and gutsy guitar penetrating the daily humdrum of life. Although this same street-side musician went on to record thirty sides for Columbia, Johnson never thirsted to be a musician and was instead intent on preaching the gospel.

His deep-held dedication to his faith is heard in his compositional style and song choices, many of which were adapted from old hymns. ‘Let Your Light Shine On Me’ was a popular hymn published by the evangelist Homer Rodeheaver in the early 1920s and ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’ is a lyric taken direct from a hymn titled ‘Gethsemane’, written by English clergyman Thomas Haweis in 1792.

Another gospel inflected number, ‘If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down’ references the biblical narrative of Samson and Delilah, drawing on themes of deceit and corruption. Legend has it that Johnson was nearly arrested for attempting to incite a riot by singing this song outside a New Orleans Custom House. To elicit such a strong reaction from the authorities, Johnson sure must have been playing up a storm and enticing the crowds.

World Music Network have painstakingly remastered the warped and hissing recordings that exist of Johnson, and on this Rough Guide his slide guitar technique sparkles and fizzes out across the texture like never before. As testament to his earth-shaking and historically significant style, Johnson’s recording of ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’ was included on the Voyager space probe, a rocket that was sent on a mission to seek out other life forms in the universe.

After you have devoured the main disc, enjoy the bonus disc and raise the roof with more of the best gospel from the likes of Reverend Gary Davis, Bukka White, Edward Clayborn, Jaybird Coleman and more. Like Blind Willie Johnson, these artists straddled the line between the Lord’s song and that of the old blues style.