The legendary Blind Willie Johnson was born in Texas in 1897. He was blinded by his step mother at the age of seven but, like many of his counterparts, managed to master the guitar. Johnson, in particular, developed a distinctive slide guitar style. He recorded many songs with female singers but when playing solo he often used his guitar to imitate a second voice in call-and-response refrains.
Johnson had a raspy voice, adopting a false-bass range to add power to his songs. His repertoire consisted solely of Gospel Blues songs, albeit for a couple of oddities like ‘Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’, which in itself was still far removed from the traditional blues of its day.
He preached and sang on the streets of a number of cities in Texas during his lifetime and records showed that he ran a House of Prayer in Beaumont, Texas. However, in 1945 his house burned down and, having nowhere to go, he and his wife continued to live in the ruins, even sleeping on a wet bed. Johnson subsequently contracted Malaria and was taken to the hospital by his wife, where he was refused treatment. Accounts of the story differ, one version say he was turned away for being black whilst another states it was because he was blind. Either way, his condition worsened and he died on September 18, 1945. He lived a poor life and died a tragic death.
However, the story doesn’t end there…
In 1977 NASA launched the Voyager Spacecraft. On it was a Gold record entitled The Sounds of Earth. It contained music by Beethoven, Guan Pinghu, Mozart, Stravinsky, Chuck Berry and Kesarbai Kerkar as an example of human expression and intended for any extraterrestrial lifeform that happened to have a record player.
Also, on the Gold record was ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’ by Blind Willie Johnson, an eerie, haunting instrumental. Although, there is no singing on the track, sources state that it is intended to invoke images of the Crucifixion of Christ.
Johnson’s legacy is this; in November 2004 Blind Willie Johnson’s music left the Solar System. A poor man, who died a tragic death, is remembered by the fact that his music has ventured further than thousands of other more prosperous, more famous musicians.
We now wait for the day that we are contacted by aliens, with this one request; Send more Blind Willie Johnson music!
When I started listening to Blues I was fascinated, and a little surprised, by the fact that bands would sometimes cover Blues songs with Gospel lyrics. You’d have the Stones doing ‘You’ve Got To Move’, Zeppelin covering ‘In My Time Of Dying’ and Clapton recording a number of Gospel Blues tunes through the Seventies including ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ and ‘We’ve Been Told (Jesus Is Coming Soon)’.
What I didn’t realise at the time was the part that Gospel Blues had played in the history of the Blues.
Looking back at the Blues it’s easy to think that Blues and Gospel were worlds apart, however, that’s not the case. Early Bluesmen would often switch back and forth between playing Blues and Gospel songs, some would go even further, as in the case of Son House who started out as a preacher before turning to the Blues and Skip James who did the opposite.
However, Gospel Blues wasn’t merely the standard 12 Bar Blues pattern with Christian lyrics, it carried a format all of its own. For you musos out there the Gospel Blues pattern is;
| I – V – | I – – – | I – – – | V- – – | I – – – | IV – – – | I – V – | I – – – |
You can find this pattern in songs like ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, ‘This Train’ & ‘Somebody On You Bond’, to name a few. ‘This Train’ is an interesting tune as this is clearly the inspiration for Little Walter’s ‘My Babe’. Ray Charles was also famous for taking Gospel songs and putting secular words to them. However, the real shocker is ‘Pains Of Life’ by Elijah Fair, which was re-interpreted (that’s being polite) into ‘Chain Of Fools’. So, the crossover between Gospel and Blues, and later Soul, is well documented, if not well known.
Some artists played up to the image of the Blues being the Devils music, most notably Robert Johnson and you certainly get the impression that he wouldn’t have been caught dead playing a Gospel tune. However, the opposite was also true. Blind Willie Johnson didn’t play anything but Gospel Blues and to this day remains the main exponent of this, often forgotten, sub-genre of Blues. Rev Gary Davis also played Gospel Blues in the main, although he did dally with Ragtime & Blues songs. His style of guitar playing was very different to that of Blind Willie, favouring the fingerpicking Piedmont style as opposed to the slide guitar of his counterpart. However, both musicians shared a similar gruff, passionate vocal style.
As a Christian musician, feeling very much at odds with the lyrics of many classic blues tunes, uncovering the largely untapped back catalogue of Gospel Blues was, quite literally, a Godsend. Now I could put all that passion and honesty of the Blues into something I did believe in. My kind of Christianity might be quite different to the religion of Blind Willie or Rev Gary but I still associate more with being a Holy Roller than a Hoochie Coochie Man.
The band had a fantastic night yesterday (Sept 14th 2012) at the Café Jazz In Cardiff, playing for the Blues Dragon Club. It’s a beautiful venue with a great restaraunt and the Blues Dragon guys put a band on every Friday night at 10.00pm.
Our set is a mixture of originals and blues classics from our two CDs and a good selection of classic covers,so alongside our gospel blues stuff you get ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, ‘She Caught The Katy’, ‘When Love Comes To Town’, ‘Superstition’ and lots more besides, last night we decided to throw in ‘Route 66’ practiced it for the first time in the soundcheck and then threw it in the set.
You can find the Blues Dragon club at www.Bluesdragon.org.uk. Besides the Café Jazz nights they also promote live blues at the Gower Hotel in Cardiff so you can always trust them to find top quality bands.
Thanks to all who came out to see the band, we will be at Fagins in Taffs Well next Thursday (20th Sept) at 9.00pm, hope to see you there.
Well, we finally went and did it! The Tim Crahart Blues band went and got a website! Welcome to the twentieth century everyone.
Now, we’re not likely to win any awards for innovative website design here, but if you have a poke around you will find that you can find out where we are playing, buy our music and look at our lovely phizzogs!
We will use this blog section for random musings from time to time, gig reviews, recording blogs, plugs for our mates and a bit of blues history.
Tim has promised to tell the Blind Willie Johnson story again so we’re all looking forward to that.
Meanwhile we hope to meet up with you at one of our forthcoming gigs, come and say hello.