Born Willie Johnson in 1901 (some sources say 1902), Marlin, TX; (died 1949); married Angeline, June 22, 1927.
Blind Willie Johnson produced a series of ominous gospel recordings in 1920s and 1930s that combined virtuoso slide guitar, rough, powerful vocals, and songs that as often as not told of an angry God wreaking vengeance on a sinful world. Johnson's music electrified listeners during the depths of the Great Depression. Although Johnson recorded exclusively religious music, the earthy feel of his voice and guitar are the equal of any country blues artist recorded during his time. The music that electrified Johnson's contemporaries, black and white alike, continued to exert a powerful attraction at the end of the century.
Willie Johnson was born on a farm near Marlin Texas around 1901 or 1902. His mother died when he was about four years old, and his father George Johnson remarried, an act that would have dire consequences for the young boy. According to a story Willie's widow told researcher Sam Charters in the 1950s, a few years after his second marriage, George Johnson caught his second wife in the arms of another man. He gave her a severe beating and in retaliation, the woman threw a pan of lye in seven-year-old Willie's face, blinding him. The story may be mere fiction: other sources claim Willie Johnson told them he went blind from wearing borrowed glasses or from watching an eclipse of the sun through a piece of smoked glass.
Johnson's interest in both music and religion began at an early age. When he was only five, legend has it, he was telling folks he was going to become a preacher when he grew up. Around the same time his father him built a cigar box guitar. It is not known who taught him to play guitar, but he is said to have picked up his rough false bass singing style from a blind gospel singer in Marlin named Madkin Butler. By the time Johnson had reached his teens he was singing and playing guitar in the streets of Marlin, summer and winter alike, for the spare change passers-by might offer. In 1925 he was living in Hearne, Texas where his father did farm work. George would drive Willie into town each morning, where he would find a place under one of the awnings on the main street and perform. With three profitable brickyards Hearne's local economy was humming and Willie made good money there. It was so good that Blind Lemon Jefferson, the first great star of recorded country blues, would play the same streets at the same time Johnson was there.
At some point during the next two years Johnson moved to Dallas and was playing the streets there when he met his wife-to-be, Angeline. "A tall gangling man with a thin mustache; a dark intense man," as Sam Charters described him in The Country Blues, Johnson was singing "If I Had My Way" when Angeline saw him for the first time. When he left, she followed behind, singing the song herself until he finally noticed her. When he did she invited him to her house to sing hymns. Angeline later told Charters what happened next: she sat down at her piano and belted out a version of "If I Had My Way" that so impressed Willie that he urged her on shouting "Go on, gal, tear it up!" When she had finished singing, she made him a gumbo which he apparently enjoyed so much that he proposed marriage then and there. The gumbo was their courtship; the wedding was held June 22, 1927, the very next day.
Johnson 's first recording date took place later that year on December 3, 1927 for Columbia Records in Dallas. He recorded six sides, all religious songs, but infused with a passionate intensity that leapt from the lacquer grooves of the 78s. It was just Johnson's voice and his guitar. But his emotional slide playing, like a second vocalist, engaged in a beautiful call and response with his own singing. Johnson is said to have used a pocketknife when playing slide; however executed, it possessed a matchless precision. It is even more remarkable considering Texas has no bottleneck or slide guitar tradition Johnson must have been essentially self-taught. He also sang with two distinct singing voices: one a soft tenor, the other, a growling false bass that quaked like the voice of an angry god. He contrasts them to beautiful effect on his version of "Let Your Light Shine On Me."
Willie's first release, in January 1928, was "I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole" b/w "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed;" his second which came out the following spring, was "Nobody's Fault But Mine" b/w "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground." A contemporary reviewer, quoted by Charters, enthused of the latter, "Blind Willie Johnson's violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans and his inspired guitar in a primitive and frightening Negro religious song 'Nobody's Business but Mine!'"
After his first session Johnson and Angeline moved a number of times, first to Waco, then Temple, before finally settling down and buying a house in Beaumont. In December 1928 he returned to Dallas to record once again for Columbia, this time four songs. The records, "I'm Gonna Run to the City of Refuge" b/w "Jesus Is Coming Soon" and "I Just Can't Keep From Crying" b/w "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," were released in February and May 1929 respectively. It was long assumed that the female vocalist on these and later Blind Willie Johnson records was Angeline. However, David Evans's liner notes to Sweeter As the Years Go By, speculated that it might in actuality have been Willie B. Harris, a woman uncovered by blues researcher Dan Williams. Harris claimed not only to have been the sweet voice on most of Johnson's records, but also his wife common-law presumably when he proposed to Angeline! Interestingly, according to Evans in her 1950s interviews with Charters, Angeline never once claimed she had sung on any of her husband's recordings.
In December 1929 Columbia paid for Johnson to travel to New Orleans to record again and Angeline remained at home with the Johnson's new baby. For this session, a soprano from a local church was brought in to sing with Johnson. He remained in New Orleans nearly one month, playing for new audiences there. According to one story, Johnson was singing his passionate Sampson song "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down" in front of the New Orleans Customs House and police nearly arrested him for attempting to incite a riot. Whether or not it is true, it testifies to the power and energy of Johnson's version of the song.
As Stephen Calt points out in his liner notes for Praise God I'm Satisfied, the fact that Columbia waited a full year between Johnson's recording sessions probably indicates that they were disappointed with his sales. In fact, in early 1929 Johnson sold about 5000 records. By contrast, Barbecue Bob and Bessie Smith Columbia's most popular artists, sold about 6000 and from 9000-10,000 respectively. As the depression deepened, however, and interest in religion surged, Blind Willie Johnson's popularity jumped, too. He continued to sell around 5000 records annually, but Barbecue Bob's sales dropped to 2000, and Smith's to 3000.
Johnson's session took place on April 30, 1930 in Atlanta Georgia. He cut ten sides on this last visit, concluding with the widely-copied "You Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond." The Depression eventually cut drastically into Johnson's sales, but in November 1934 his was still the second largest listing in the Columbia race catalog, after Bessie Smith. That he continued to be popular is shown by the fact that four of his records were re-issued in 1935, a rare occurrence in race recordings of the time. Unusual also was Johnson's popularity among early white connoisseurs of black folk music.
Once his recording career had ended, Willie and Angeline Johnson continued to live in Beaumont with their children. He earned his living as a street musician, and when Charters called on them in the 1950s, store owners in town still remembered him as a dignified, neatly dressed man. Johnson sang regularly at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church and at regional religious gatherings, as well. In winter 1949 a fire broke out in the Johnson house. It destroyed Willie's guitar but the family managed to escape unharmed. They slept in the partially ruined home, on soaked mattresses that Angeline covered with newspapers. Willie tossed and turned that night. When he awoke, he was damp and sick, but went out in the streets singing anyway. He developed pneumonia, Angeline told Charters, and within a few days was dying. The local hospital was no help. "They wouldn't accept him. He'd be living today if they'd accepted him. They wouldn't accept him because he was blind."
Johnson's religious music exerted a potent influence on secular musicians, in particular blues artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mance Lipscomb and Muddy Waters, as well as rock players such as Ry Cooder and Alex Chilton. His music and popularity outlived him by decades. Bootlegs of the 1935 reissues, which appeared in the 1950s credited to "The Blind Pilgrim," sold well judging from the number that were subsequently found in private collections, according to David Evans. Even more remarkable, as late as the 1970s Columbia Records included a Blind Willie Johnson song on an anthology The Gospel Sound. Black gospel stations played the cut regularly and were deluged with calls from local churches who wanted to book the unknown artist to sing at church events. Little did they know he had been dead for twenty-five years.
by Gerald E. Brennan
Blind Willie Johnson's Career
Recorded six sides for Columbia, December 3, 1927; first record "I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole" backed with (b/w) "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" released late January of 1928; recorded four sides for Columbia in December of 1928; recorded ten sides in New Orleans for Columbia; recorded another ten titles in Atlanta April of 1930.
- Selected discography
- Praise God I'm Satisfied , Yazoo, 1988
- Sweeter As the Years Go By , Yazoo, 1990
- The Complete Recordings of Blind Willie Johnson , Columbia/Legacy, 1993.
- Barlow, William, Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1989.
- Charters, Samuel, The Country Blues, Da Capo, New York, 1975.
- Dixon, Robert and John Godrich, Recording the Blues, Stein & Day.
- Additional information provided by the liner notes to Praise God I'm Satisfied by Stephen Calt and the liner notes to Sweeter As the Years Go By by David Evans.