Blind Willie Johnson - Biography



Gravel-voiced Blind Willie Johnson was a gospel-blues preacher and the most persuasive musical argument for bottleneck guitar. His music drew from folk, hymns and blues to create a small but influential body of work, all of which has thankfully been preserved. On the other hand, most of the facts about his life are unconfirmable at best and contradictory at worst.

 

William Johnson was born January 22nd, 1897, just outside Brenham, Texas, in the heart of the bluebonnet region. His mother died when he was a three or four and his father, George, quickly remarried, soon after relocating the family to Marlin. When Willie was five, he supposedly expressed his desire to preach the gospel and his father obliged him by constructing a guitar out of a cigar box so that he could perform in public with a can and make a little money. When he was seven, an alleged bit of domestic violence resulted in Willie's stepmother supposedly throwing lye in the boys face (accounts vary as to whether or not it was meant for his father) leaving him blind. Johnson continued performing publicly, honing his slide guitar skills. According to some sources, he used a pocket knife; Blind Willie McTell claimed his slide was a brass ring. In the only known photo of Johnson, he doesn't seem to use either. On Saturdays, not only did Johnson begin traveling to Hearne to play religious songs, he also began preaching.

 

In 1926, he seems to have been married to a woman, Willie B. Harris (or Hays). On June 22nd, 1927, he reportedly married a woman named Angeline whom he met whilst performing in Dallas.  Neither has thus far been verified by a certificate and are based on the two women's claims. As a husband and wife duo, they performed around Dallas and Waco until, in December, Johnson entered the Columbia's Dallas studios and recorded ten songs, including Johnson's most celebrated, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground." It has the distinction of being one of 27 samples of music included on the Voyager Golden Record, launched into space in 1977 to represent the diversity of life on Earth. On his second visit, on December 5, 1928, accompanied by his wife on backing vocals, he recorded another session and became one of Columbia's most popular artists, with his 78s being pressed in numbers around 10,000 and he was outselling artists as popular as Bessie Smith.

 

After the couple met Elder Dave Ross, they traveled to New Orleans's Columbia studios in December, 1929, to record another ten songs. He stayed for nearly a month and during a performance in New Orleans in front of the Customs House of "If I Had My Way," he was arrested for attempting to incite a riot buy an officer who misconstrued the biblical allusion in the title. After his release, he visited his father, again single and living in LaFayette, before heading back to Beaumont. In April, 1930, Johnson recorded his final session with his wife occasionally singing lead. His final release, "John the Revelator" b/w "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond" was deleted after a mere 800 copies were pressed, due to Columbia facing serious financial challenges with the onset of the depression. Afterward, he resumed his regular gig of street performances, mostly along Forsythe, sometimes accompanied by his and his wife's children. In the following years, he sometimes accompanied other acts like the Silver Fleece Quartet.

 

With Harris/Hays, he is said to have given birth to a daughter, Sam Faye Johnson on June 23rd, 1931 and she's provided a birth certificate listing a musician, William Johnson, as her father. A 1944 city directory showed that Reverend W J Johnson was preaching at the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street in Beaumont. After his house burned down, the impoverished Johnson is said to have grown sick after sleeping in the ashes of his former abode although his final residence is given as the church at which he preached. Angeline Johnson told his biographer years later that she attempted to admit him to a hospital but he was refused on account of either his blackness, his blindness or both. On September 18th, 1945, he died. The cause of death was listed as malarial fever with syphilis as a contributing factor... as well as blindness. He's believed by some music historians to be buried in Beaumont's Blanchette cemetery. His wife went on to find employment as a nurse in the 1950s. In 1993, all 30 of his recordings were collected and released as The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (Columbia).

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