Out of one the darkest periods of our history came a style of music that would have never happened without the slave trade. Let me be clear, for one man to even think it’s OK to own another man is abhorrent and makes me more than a little afraid for our species. To then treat freed slaves with the horrid conditions we as a country forced them into is monumentally mystifying. I don’t care what the Bible says about slavery. The Bible also says it’s OK to stone a person if they blaspheme the name of the Lord. Try that in a Walmart and see what it gets ya.
Over the next few months I will write about some of the early, and perhaps somewhat obscure to the gentle reader, blues artists from the beginning of the art form or at least where we started recording them. A lot’s been written about guys like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson and I will not challenge the words of better men. Instead I will focus more on folks like Charley Patton, Lemon (who was also blind) Jefferson, Bessie Smith, Son House and Willie (who was also blind) McTell. Not every issue, and it might take me 6 months to get through these guys. But they were all important and worth some study. Bear with me folks. You might get bored to zombie land but I’ll have a ball.
This can be a touchy subject so let me say this. I may upset some by not talking about guys like Leadbelly and WC Handy. I am not here to lecture you on the birth of the blues. Again, better men. I’m nominally researching people I don’t know much about and passing it on. That’s it. If you start an argument like ‘Who Was The Father of the Blues’ I will form a posse and find your ass. By the way, why do subjects like the beginnings of anything make people so crazy? Weird.
The first I will cover is possibly my favorite. Willie Johnson was a gifted songwriter, an amazing vocalist by any standard and a true innovator on the slide guitar. Today’s slide guys like Derek Trucks and Ry Cooder point to specific songs like ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ and ‘Dark Is the Night, Cold is the Ground’ as the definitive moments in slide innovation and even still some of the best slide work ever done and we will cover them here. But first we go back a ways.
Willie Johnson was born in Pendleton, TX just before the end of the 19th century in 1897. All of the people we’ll talk about, except Charley Patton (1887) and Son House (1902) were born within 4 years of each other and so a fertile ground was being laid. History from this period was pretty gray, especially for indigenous peoples, and there are more stories than historical accounts.
At five Willie was either given a cigar box guitar by his dad (one story) or Willie made it himself (another story). Willie J was not born blind. At 7 his dad and stepmother were arguing and either she threw the bottle of lye at the boy on purpose (one account) or she threw it at Willie’s dad and it missed and hit the boy in the face (account number 2). Doesn’t matter how. Willie was blinded for life.
Johnson emerged from childhood a dedicated evangelist preacher well known for his fiery sermons and spiritual songs. In fact, Willie J never considered himself a bluesman, instead a singer of spiritual songs and certainly the recordings of his material back that up. These songs are primarily spiritual in nature and not blues as it would come to be expressed. But the influence that Johnson had on bluesmen, especially like Robert Johnson and Howlin Wolf, was significant.
In 1923 Francis Buckley Walker was promoted to the head of Columbia’s ‘race’ division, that despite the derogatory term was dedicated to the discovery of ethnic talent. Of course there was no honor in their method; they’d discovered a market for records in the black population. Walker had heard a blues singer in a saloon in Selma in 1917 and he set about finding her. With the help of a local promoter he did find Bessie Smith and brought her to New York and started recording hits.
With Walker’s success, by 1927 he was able to setup a makeshift studio in Dallas to record local talent. Willie Johnson was a well-known preacher and had a wide range of songs which Walker started to document. Johnson had a hit with “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole” and “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” that eclipsed even Bessie Smith’s latest record for which he was paid $50 and a sum to give up the rights, a substantial amount of money for the time.
In December 1928 Columbia again recorded Johnson, including ‘Keep the Lamp Trimmed and Burning’ with his wife as backup vocalist. The two had a unique field holler vocal style trading off lyric lines. But what is most remarkable to me is his melodic slide playing here. If you listen to early Muddy Waters which is more than ten years later his slide playing was a little violent and even crude but symptomatic of his whole style. Now listen carefully to what Johnson is doing here, both with the sweet slide soloing and the stride piano style to his rhythm playing. In his slide work you can hear how he can get 3 or 4 notes out of one hit on the string with incredible expression and accuracy. Also consider that an early blues archivist who’d seen Willie said he used a pocket knife as a slide. Had to have been hard to control as you’re using that plastic edge and balancing an angle not natural to a pocket knife. But once you’re used to something…Joe Walsh has this great story about how he was using a slide from a cold pill bottle favored by Duane Allman and after making his first money scoured the country for these cold pills and got on a Fed Drug List. That Joe.
Note from the only picture I’ve found of Johnson, the cup wired to the end of his Stella guitar for contributions.
This next exemplifies his incredible vocal style. Called ‘chest singing’ Willie J could switch effortlessly between his velvet style to this blast of power in which you can hear layers that include his standard voice under this violent howl. This recording of ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ is also a favorite of Eric Clapton’s who said this was the precursor and example for every slide player since.
‘Soul of a Man’. This is an evangelical preacher whose faith in the Lord is solid. But here in the halcyon of the 20’s is asking “OK, I get it. We have a soul that will transcend this life. But what the heck does that mean?” By the way, the picture with the audio is not Johnson but Willie McTell.
‘John the Revelator’ has been covered by many artists including Gov’t Mule and Derek Trucks. Again, an example of the call-and-answer style of letting the backup finish the line and the lead setup the beginning of the next line.
Between 1927 and 1930 Willie Johnson was recorded in five sessions resulting in close to 40 sides. The Depression brought hard times for everyone, especially entertainers and ended a lot of the careers of the fringe guys. Some songs by Willie J were re-released in 1932 but he never recorded after that last session in 1930. He did continue to work in churches and towns around Texas into the 1940’s. In 1945 his house in Beaumont, TX burned to the ground. With no place to go, he slept in the burnt ruins of the house. Willie Johnson contracted pneumonia, and after being denied access to local hospitals died on September 18, 1945 at the age of 47. Dat, right there, is the Blues.
‘Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground’ was written by Johnson about the crucifixion of Christ and called by Jack White “the greatest example of slide guitar ever recorded”. It is a haunting and exhilarating example of a man’s soul crying through his instrument. As you listen to it, dig this. In 1977 Carl Sagan and a group of scientists were tasked with placing recordings on the outbound space traveler Voyager for posterity and possible discovery by an alien race. There were examples of sounds from Earth with frogs, thunderstorms, volcanoes, human laughter and greetings in 55 languages. 27 musical recordings were sent, including this recording of ‘Dark was the Night’. Just thinking of this recording traveling through the deep detached cold of space raises hairs on the back of my soul.
[I’ll throw in two bits of trivia here—I didn’t want to interrupt Woody’s wonderfully-atmospheric piece.
[First—I saw Joe Walsh play numerous times when he lived in Memphis in the ’80’s, and he mentioned his use of glass Coricidin bottles as slides. He said that when plastic bottles were coming into vogue, he went around buying up stocks of the glass-bottled pills from drug stores. According to Wikipedia—and of course, they’re never wrong—the use of Coricidin bottles as slides started with Duane Allman. Maybe it did.
Second— Some melodic threads in “Dark Was the Night…” brings to mind the Stones’ “You Gotta Move”—but it’s much more affecting.
Finally—a tip of the Leebens Lid to John Seetoo for pointing out that I had originally posted a pic of Blind Willie McTell. My bad—Ed.]