How the Son of a Rural Sharecropper Became an Ambassador for Humanity: The Story of Blind Willie Johnson

At the age of five, George Johnson gave his son Willie a gift that would change his life—a cigar box guitar. As Willie picked it up and began strumming, it soon became apparent that he had a gift.

A couple of years later, Willie’s stepmother was caught cheating, and his father beat her out of a jealous rage. In retaliation, she threw caustic lye in Willie’s face, blinding him for life.

It was hard enough for the son of an African-American sharecropper to eke out a living in rural Texas, it was nearly impossible for one with a disability. But Blind Willie Johnson, as he was now called, responded to the challenge by leaving his home and travelling to large cities where he sat on street corners with a tin can tied to the neck of his guitar, playing gospel songs.

It was a place he was drawn to over and over again in his life, and it was here that he perfected a technique of playing slide guitar using a knife. Steve James, a guitarist from Austin, commented, “We figured out he got twelve separate pitches by striking the string once, all inside one measure. I’ve been trying to do that for twenty-five years, and I can do seven or eight. There’s a saying guitarists have when we try to play Blind Willie: ‘I’m getting as close as I can.’” (“The Soul of a Man,” Texas Monthly, December 2010)

In 1927 a talent scout from Columbia Records discovered Johnson and invited him to record at a studio in Deep Ellum in Dallas. Johnson played six songs, among them was a gospel tune entitled, “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground.” Though the subject of the song reflected upon the suffering of Christ during the crucifixion, the title alone captured much of Blind Willie’s life, where he slept under the stars on cold concrete.  The groans and moans of Johnson’s vocals is as much about the pain from his own homelessness as it was Christ’s.

During his restless life, Johnson found it difficult to stay anywhere for very long. Eventually, he settled in Beaumont, Texas, where he served as a minister at the House of Prayer. In 1945 his house burned to the ground, and with nowhere to go, he continued to sleep at the same location among the charred timbers. In the process he caught pneumonia, and though his wife took him to the hospital, they refused to admit him, probably because of his color.

Blind Willie Johnson died soon after.

Then, in the 1950s and 60s, folk music experienced a revival, and thanks in part to Blind Willie Johnson’s inclusion in an anthology edited by Harry Smith, a new generation of young guitarists was influenced by Johnson’s style and technique, including icons like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin.

If that weren’t enough, in the 1970s, Carl Sagan was contacted by Nasa to put together an album made of copper and gold that they wanted to attach to the Voyager 1 spacecraft. It was to be a “message in a bottle” to be cast in the vast ocean of space on behalf of humanity. Sagan had six weeks to choose ninety minutes of material.

With no time to spare, Sagan collected pictures, sounds, and greetings from humans in dozens of different languages to include on the album. But then it came time to add the music. How does one choose only ninety minutes of material from the vast amount of great music from humanity?  Obviously, Sagan wanted to include songs from as many eras and cultures as possible. But then it came time to choose something contemporary from America.

Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” made the headlines when it was chosen. And in a “Saturday Night Live” bit, Steve Martin held up a Time magazine cover where aliens from space sent word back to, “Send More Chuck Berry.”

But a lesser known selection that was added toward the end of the album was Blind Willie Johnson’s, “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground.” Timothy Ferris later revealed that it was chosen because “Johnson’s song concerns a situation he faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep” (“The Soul of a Man,” Texas Monthly, December 2010).

And since Voyager would be launched into the night, well, you get the idea.

A few years ago, scientists at Nasa studied a compressed recording that lasts seconds but covers an eight-month period back in 2012. After a lot of debate, they concluded that it represents sounds beyond the heliosphere of our sun.

In other words, on August 25, 2012, Voyager 1 became the first man-made device to enter inter-stellar space.

As you read this, it is hurdling away from us at 38,000 mph and it will pass by its first star in 40,000 years.  If extra-terrestrial life every discover it, they will hear a song by a poor, blind Texan who understood more than most Voyager’s plight as it courses through a cold and dark night. And it was because of the way that Johnson beautifully captured the human condition of frigid loneliness that his song was chosen over the many other great composers and musicians of earth.

Not bad for the son of a rural sharecropper.

And it begs the questions, if Blind Willie can overcome his adversity to travel to interstellar space as an ambassador for humanity, what are we doing with our life?

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