Thursday, December 16, 2004

Dark was the night...

Download: BLIND WILLE JOHNSON "Dark Was The Night Cold Was The Ground"

Mentioning Jack Rose in the Robbie Basho post reminded me of his adept cover of this song, wherein Johnson mimicks the sound of a preacher and congregation using slide guitar and voice, no words. It is a really tough tune to write about, simply because it's so perfect. Born around 1902 in Marlin, Texas, supposedly Johnson went blind as a child after his mother threw lye in his face. Johnson just might be the greatest blues singer, ever; no less an authority than Alan Love In Vain Greenberg agrees. And while some folks like to posit Texas as the birthplace for sanctified blues/ modern gospel, that honor has to rest with Dorsey since the dude crafted so much of the canon and tutored Mahalia. Dig?

Last year, when that big Scorsese-produced PBS special of films about the blues was on the telly, I was psyched to hear that Wim Wenders made one about this gospel blues singer. This is of course before I realized that this entire series was an utter, stinking turd. Wenders has always used music so excellently in his films, so I was really psyched to see what he'd do with Johnson, who I really know very little about. There was this scene where Willie goes from playing more typical juke joint tunes to singing spirituals and, in Wenders’ film, the audience gasps and freaks out. I contend this is utter bullshit, that the audience would not have reacted that way, and the attitudes reflected in that scene are mere unfounded projections. I have this vague idea that the gospel blues, obviously a new form in the ‘30s, was its own genre, rather than the "missing link" between the two forms that it's so often made out to be, and I'd say that it continued to be fairly vital at least on into the '60s (see Fred McDowell's Amazing Grace or the brilliant, brutal Rev. Louis Overstreet With His Sons And The Congregation Of St. Luke's Powerhouse Church Of God In Christ recording) if not today.

In fact, I need to write this out clearly and submit it to the EMP for their Pop Music conference thingie. OK.


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