This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special
Last week, we talked about Son House — another soul lost to the Devil’s music.
This week, we’ll finish up this stint of 1920’s bluesmen with Blind Willie Johnson, who used the blues to spread the Good News.
Here’s what we know: Willie Johnson was born on January 25, 1897 in Pendleton, Texas, near Waco, and was raised in Marlin, TX. His father, George, was a sharecropper and his mother, Mary, died when Johnson was about four years old.
Willie Johnson’s family attended church at the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church every Sunday, which led to him eventually being ordained as a Baptist minister.
Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t born blind, but lost his sight at seven years old when, during a fight between his father and stepmother, a lye solution was splashed in his eyes.
By the time Johnson got to recording in late 1927, he had already gathered a fair bit of notoriety in the region as a gospel blues singer. He was paid handsomely for his sessions and toured from Dallas to Atlanta. Around 1930, however, times were getting hard for everyone, and his fifth album only sold 800 records. Willie Johnson kept on performing around Texas and ran the House of Prayer in Beaumont, TX.
In 1945, Johnson’s house caught fire and was destroyed. Without the means to move elsewhere, he stayed in the burnt up ruins of his home. Due to exposure, Blind Willie Johnson came down with malaria. No hospital would treat him. He died on September 18, 1945.
Blind Willie Johnson’s musical stylings are quite distinct. His voice is unmistakably gravelly and powerful. The Baptist preacher in him certainly comes out here. His slide guitar playing is renown for its accuracy and the way he uses it as harmony for his vocals.
Blind Willie Johnson used what’s been called the Devil’s music to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The blues attracts folks of all sorts of different lifestyles — some more sordid than others, as we’ve seen with the last few artists we’ve covered. Evan Williams Honey is probably called for this week. You’ll need something to soothe your throat after trying to sing along to this guy. Listen below to Blind Willie Johnson's "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed".