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Dark Was The Night--Cold Was The Ground by Blind Willie Johnson
September 15, 2005 4:12 AM   Subscribe

Ry Cooder once said Dark Was The Night--Cold Was The Ground was the most soulful, transcendent piece of American music recorded in the 20th Century. Unearthly and music of the spheres were common descriptions long before both became fact when it was included on a golden record was affixed to the star bound Voyager space probe. My first encounter with Dark Was The Night was while watching, and then listening to the soundtrack album of, Piero Paulo Pasolini’s The Gospel According To St. Matthew--or as it is known in Sicily kickin' Bootsville, Il Vangelo de Matteo--which is, in my humble opinion, the Greatest. Jesus. Movie. Evar. Ironically, coincidentally and serendipitously, it was an apt choice by Pasolini, as the hymn from which Blind Willie Johnson's wordless moan derives is a song about Christ’s passion—his suffering and crucifixion. (Continued with much more within)
posted by y2karl (67 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ry Cooder himself has made Dark Was The Night, a touchstone in his recordings, from a first take on his first album to, more famously, an atmospheric distillation of it for the opening theme of Wim Wender's Paris, Texas, which made a sonorous single string slide guitar played in Open D tuning to denote the vast American landscape a convention in subsequent road movie soundtracks--think Thelma And Louise, for example. And, to continue the cinematic tip in these words about the wordless Ouroboros, let us note also The Soul Of A Man, in which Wim Wenders has Blind Willie Johnson recounting his life and times from between the stars.

Now, as to clips of the song, the patient can find a number of versions of the song---and the rest of Johnson's recorded output---under Blind Willie Johnson at Weenie Juke Radio. Stefan Grossman has the song entire in his Blind Willie Johnson program at Country Blues Guitar - A Series of 17 Radio Broadcasts --it's about 9 minutes into the 13 minute program. Which provides ample evidence why Grossman is not known as a vocalist. Here is the partial Authentic History Project clip.

There is a clip of a version of Dark Was The Night with words sung by another black sanctified singer from Folkway's page for Music from the South, Vol. 7: Elder Songsters, sung by John and Lovie Griffins, the melody of which sounds similar to what Johnson's moan: the song is a slow drawn out dirge sung in an intertwining call and response is between Griffins and his wife--not unlike how Johnson sang with Willie B. Harris and Angeline Johnson, respectively, at his two sessions for Columbia Records.

Johnson's version of the song is unlike anything else he recorded. He usually sang in an unbelievably loud and incredibly raspy forced falso bravo false bass to a woman singing a high voiced response while he played a pile drivingly rhythmic guitar laced with bottleneck ostinatos.

For comparison, from the Encyclopedia Titanica comes Johnson's God Moves on the Water while an mp3 of Blind Willie Johnson Praise God I'm Satisfied can be found here and here is some of his John The Revelator.

Dark was another thing entirely: slow, surging with his high E--now D as in Open D tuning--slide notes singing the woman's line and apart from an Ah well here and Oh, Lord there, there are no words. He sings with passion and intensity but intensely and passionately what ?

The wordlessness itself is part of the song's power but the wordlessness is ours. The song was a hymn of the Passion of Christ. Consider the second verse:

"Father, remove this bitter cup,
If such Thy sacred will;
If not, content to drink it up
Thy pleasure I fulfill."


The song recalls Christ at his weakest, most dark and doubting moment and then recounts his suffering. It comes as no surprise then, that the song would resonate with those born into slavery. Consider what Ludwig Feuerbach wrote about the Passion:

The Passion of Christ, however, represents not only moral, voluntary suffering, the suffering of love, the power of sacrificing self for the good of others; it represents also suffering as such, suffering in so far as it is an expression of possibility in general. The Christian religion is so little superhuman that it even sanctions human weakness. The heathen philosopher, on hearing tidings of the death of his child exclaims: 'I knew that he was mortal.' Christ, on the contrary--at least in the Bible,--sheds tears over the death of Lazarus, a death which he nevertheless knew to be only an apparent one. While Socrates empties the cup of poison with unshaken soul, Christ exclaims, 'If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.' Christ is in this respect the self-confession of human sensibility. In opposition to the heathen, and in particular the stoical principle, with its rigorous energy of will and self-sustainedness, the Christian involves the consciousness of his own sensitiveness and susceptibility in the consciousness of God; he finds it, if only it be no sinful weakness, not denied, not condemned in God.

Harry Lewman , who himself has recorded his own version for twelve string guitar--there have been a bluegrass and jazz versions of it as well--has a part of the puzzle:

Thomas Haweis was an English physician and clergyman who wrote this song and hundreds of other hymns. Its original title was "Gethsemane" and was published in a book of hymns dated 1792. It is among the many hymns that were taught to American Negro slaves in the 1800's by British missionaries.

Here are two more clues:

During the post-Civil War period and later, some congregation conducted services without hymnbooks. A deacon (or precentor) set the pitch and reminded the words in half-singing half-chanting stentorian tones. The people called their songs 'long-meter hymns' (because the tempo was very low) or 'Dr Watts', even if they have not been written by this gentleman. The particular feature of this kind of singing was its surging, melismatic melody, punctuated after each praise by the leader’s intoning of the next line of the hymn. The male voices doubled the female voices an octave below and with the thirds and the fifths occurring when individuals left the melody to sing in a more comfortable range. The quality of the singing was distinctive for its hard, full-throated and/or nasal tones with frequent exploitation of falsetto, growling, and moaning.

The tunes and the beats, before 1865

Lining-out is a hymn-singing tradition that arose out of necessity. There was a lack of hymn books and an abundance of people who could not read; therefore, one person was designated to 'pitch' the song for the whole congregation. Both African and Anglo Americans practice this tradition in different performance styles. In the Anglo tradition the congregation sings almost the exact melody and rhythms of the leader, with some variation from individual singers; in the African-American tradition, the lead voice and congregation overlap melodically and rhythmically and decorate the hymn tunes with various vocal embellishments and moans. This produces an extraordinary effect sometimes called surge singing. In many churches this style is still performed a cappella.

"Like a River Flowing with Living Water": Worshiping in the Mississippi Delta

Considering Johnson's slide guitar, this excerpt regarding Muddy Water's playing from Preaching The Blues: The Mississippi Delta of Muddy Waters is pertinent:

... Steel-string bottleneck playing incorporated the Muslim-influenced wavering, or melismatic effect, that combined with an open or drone string that gave some West African-derived music a single tonal center. This melismatic style also lent itself to call and response patterns that West Africans carried far into African American culture.

Here are tabs of Johnson's Dark was The Night and here is one of Ry Cooder's Dark Is The Night courtesy of Kay-Uwe Graw's Sliding Zone. Cooder, in the same interview from which his quote above comes, allowed that to even come close to the neighborhood of Johnson's playing took him a half hour's warming up. This has been my experience as well--albeit at a much greater distance from the original at my best. I will say this, however--trying to learn the song will open up your playing.

Now, while almost all the biographies refer to Johnson playing slide in his lap with a jack knife, one will notice upon close examination of the one photograph of Blind Willie Johnson--scroll down and click on the thumbnail of it at this Imperial Crowns page for a bigger picture--otherwise. Johnson is holding his guitar in the standard position and has what looks like a sawed off wine bottle neck on his pinkie. So much for the jack knife.

Here's a tip for the playa's: get a glass slide. My newly informed guess about the recording is that Johnson is playing a glass slide on new strings. A glass slide brings out those squeaky counter point ghost notes far more than a metal one--especially on a newly restrung guitar.


And as a bonus for fellow fans of Pasolini's Rebel Jesus, here is the Gospel According to St. Matthew page at Hollywood Jesus, replete with many stills and some very bad RealVideo clips of the English dubbed version-- the original Italian version is considered by far the better film to watch. Nonetheless they give you the flava--and you can hear Dark Was The Night faintly in the background in the scene where Judas hangs himself after betraying Jesus. Here is a review from Flickering regarding the film and here is a recent meditation by Roger Ebert comparing the Pasolin's film with Mel Gibson's The Passion Of Christ. I did not know until now that Gibson filmed his Passion in the same location where Pasolini filmed his Gospel. Here is a link rich discussion of the Gospel, wherein I found that the then nineteen year old Basque student Pasolini chose to play Jesus is now an economist and a professor of literature... also an expert in information technology and artificial intelligence and an organizer and referee of computer chess tournaments who once played chess against the likes of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. To quote Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle, Gol-l-l-l-l-lee! Who'd a-thunk ?

And now for dessert, click on Dark Was The Night in this list of songs from Voyager's golden record and click all the way through another decent biography of Blind Willie Johnson for the song. Here is the intro for all that--a sort of animated riff on the Voyager images. Now is that cool or what ?
posted by y2karl at 4:15 AM on September 15, 2005 [9 favorites]


What a fascinating post. It will take me all day to explore and digest this. (And to think I was going to do some work!)
posted by MinPin at 4:22 AM on September 15, 2005 [1 favorite]


Thankyou for this.

I'm going to download all the Grossman radio shows :)
posted by the cuban at 4:52 AM on September 15, 2005


Thank you!
posted by dydecker at 5:14 AM on September 15, 2005


Yippee, musical goodness from y2karl! Can't dig into this juicy post until tonight, but I do look forward to that. And thanks for starting my day off with a mention of Ry Cooder... I think I will stick one of his CDs in my car for my commute. Thanks, y2karl.
posted by madamjujujive at 5:17 AM on September 15, 2005


you showoff bastard.
posted by Hat Maui at 5:28 AM on September 15, 2005


I'm listening to the Grossman show on Blind Willie as I type, trying to assimilate all the information and perspectives you've shared. This is the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to MeFi. Many thanks once again, y2karl.
posted by languagehat at 5:46 AM on September 15, 2005


So good to see you back in fine form posting here y2karl. You give Mefi flava.
posted by nofundy at 5:53 AM on September 15, 2005


Thanks for another jawdropping post. To all the Karl haters out there, flag it and move on. I think MeFi needs more posts on this rather then politics and flamewars. One song can change your life and this may be your song dear readers.
posted by wheelieman at 5:55 AM on September 15, 2005


This D string, it vibrates?
(Terrific post, y2)
posted by hal9k at 5:57 AM on September 15, 2005


Listening to Blind Willie Johnson right now - John the Revelator - Pesi Rhapsody Blue wins sometimes.
posted by adamvasco at 6:01 AM on September 15, 2005


... and ditto nofundy and wheelieman.
posted by adamvasco at 6:02 AM on September 15, 2005


I had never heard the name Blind Willie Johnson until about 10 minutes before I read this post, when I decided to look up the lyrics for Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dyin'" (quickly becoming my favorite Zep song) from Physical Graffiti. In the notes it says,
(Bonham/Jones/Page/Plant)
but was originally done by Blind Willie Johnson.
It was also recorded by Josh White in the 30s, and by Bob Dylan on his first album in 1962.
And I thought to myself, I gotta find out more about Blind Willie Johnson. Reading this post just moments later makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up; this is no coincidence!
posted by Doohickie at 6:05 AM on September 15, 2005


Fantastic post. Thanks
posted by farmen at 6:09 AM on September 15, 2005


Rich'n'excellent post. Thank you.
posted by the sobsister at 6:26 AM on September 15, 2005


Wow!
posted by caddis at 6:35 AM on September 15, 2005


Lovely work. Thanks for this!
posted by Verdant at 6:37 AM on September 15, 2005


Whew! Inspiring stuff, thanks.
posted by stinkycheese at 6:45 AM on September 15, 2005


Holy cow! Thanks for this wonderful post, y2karl.
posted by sleepy pete at 6:46 AM on September 15, 2005


Definitely an amazing song. Great post!
posted by malaprohibita at 6:58 AM on September 15, 2005


Alright, motherfucker, that's the way to put a post together! Thanks, you deserve nothing but praise for this excellent elevation of the front page.
posted by OmieWise at 7:00 AM on September 15, 2005


Thanks, y2karl. Effing amazing post!
posted by shoepal at 7:31 AM on September 15, 2005


Best.

Post.

Evar.

?

It certainly is MeFi at its best.
posted by Doohickie at 7:42 AM on September 15, 2005


Besides the Blonde on Blonde post or the Harry Smith one, this is your best work yet!!
posted by wheelieman at 7:49 AM on September 15, 2005


Yeah I have long thought that this song is really something! Blind Willie Johnson really gives the struggle of life voice without words here. He barely made it through the great influenza outbreak of 1918, now that is one tough dude. He died as a result of sleeping on wet newspaper I think. in one bio it says in 1993 double-disc "Complete Blind Willie Johnson" has sold only about 15,000 copies on Sony/Legacy, surely this can not be the case as I had a version of this offering on cassette tape and I live in BFE Arkansas. Thanks for the excellent post and for reminding me of the power of BWJ. I would be interested to see some more on Blind Willie Mctell who I find to be an excellent counter point (dionysian) to the apolloian Blind Willie Johnson. When are all these Columbia holdings going to fall into public domain?
posted by los pijamas del gato at 8:11 AM on September 15, 2005


What can I say except DADF#AD?(or is that DADGAD?)
Great fucking post, dude.
posted by signal at 9:05 AM on September 15, 2005


I tip my hat to y2karl. I won't get much work done today, I am affraid.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 9:10 AM on September 15, 2005


Superlatives fail me. Y2Karl, you're doing a heck of a job.
posted by Triode at 9:14 AM on September 15, 2005


is it possible to cds/cd-roms of the voyager gold record? I want to be introduced to earth as well!
posted by leibniz at 9:37 AM on September 15, 2005


Wow, that's quite a post. I salute you, man.
posted by kayjay at 10:26 AM on September 15, 2005


Great post. I'm a big Blind Willie Johnson fan, and this is a masterpiece -- an utterly chilling, unearthly, pasionate piece of music.

liebniz, "Murmurs of Earth" by Carl Sagan et al. is a great book that details the complete production process of the Voyager Interstellar Record. Warner New Media released a CD-ROM version in 1992, but it's out of print. It's totally worth looking for either.
posted by Vidiot at 10:33 AM on September 15, 2005


(and this site appears to have most if not all the pictures and sound effects on the record, and a list of the music.)
posted by Vidiot at 10:36 AM on September 15, 2005


uh. wow. nice work. thank you.
posted by Rumple at 10:50 AM on September 15, 2005


My fave, I think is his cover of FDR in Trinidad.
posted by Danf at 10:50 AM on September 15, 2005


He died as a result of sleeping on wet newspaper I think.

From the Northern Plains Archive Project Sundries Dept. Book and Record Shelves essay on The Complete Blind Willie Johnson:

You can't paint the American dream with one brush or mix the songs we wake up with down to one track. And if you want to search out who we were—and are—you need to walk the hushed, three-in-the-morning borders along the roadbeds of our common heritage past Mr. Johnson's way-station. You can't take anything that isn't given while you're there. You need to be careful what you leave out when you're passing it on to your kids and friends. We almost forgot that.

In 1945, Willie and Angeline were living at 1440 Forest Street in Beaumont, Texas when their house burned. Angeline recalled many years later that, "...we didn't know many people, and so I just, you know, drug him back in there and we laid on them wet bed clothes with a lot of newspaper. It didn't bother me but it bothered him." Blind Willie Johnson died of pneumonia. His death certificate says that he is buried in the now-neglected Blanchette ("colored") Cemetery in Beaumont. There is no headstone....


However, the Austin 360 biography of Johnson linked above in the initial post has this:

And while the death certificate corrects some previously accepted misinformation (he was born in 1897 near Brenham, not 1902 in Marlin, and died in 1945, not 1949, in Beaumont), the document doesn't tell you how he lived from 1930, when his recording career ended, until his death. It doesn't tell you how many times he was married and how many kids he fathered. It doesn't tell you how he learned to play such a wicked bottleneck guitar or which Pentecostal preachers he modeled his singing voice after. It doesn't verify the widespread legend that Willie was blinded when a stepmother threw lye in his face at age 7 to avenge a beating from his father. The certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis as a contributing factor. But when it also lists blindness as a contributor, the coroner's thoroughness becomes suspect.

...But dozens of hours in search of details on the life of Blind Willie Johnson resulted in almost zero positive reinforcements. A five-hour drive to Beaumont yielded the slightest new info; a city directory shows that in 1944, a Rev. W.J. Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forest St. That's the address listed on Blind Willie's death certificate as his last residence.

Besides the entry on the death certificate, there is no evidence that Blind Willie Johnson is buried in Beaumont's "colored" Blanchette Cemetery, a seemingly untended field littered with broken tombstones and overrun with weeds and brush. If Johnson had a headstone, it's gone now. When the cemetery floods, a man who lives across the street said, sometimes wooden coffins can be seen floating away among the debris. There is no peaceful rest, no solitude for the ages, for the migrant musician.

His music, meanwhile, continues its journey to the galaxy's back yard.


Now, the diagnosis of malarial fever, with syphilis as a contributing factor does sound suspect to me--perhaps the doctors in the house could weigh in on this.

Angeline Johnson also said, when interviewed by Samuel Charters, that she tried to take him to a hospital but they would not admit him because he was black. How could a poor man stand such times and live ?

And a postscript: Sam Faye Kelly, his surviving daughter by Willie Beatrice Harris, sang last year at The Wood Street Blues Festival in Marlin, Texas.
posted by y2karl at 12:00 PM on September 15, 2005


y2karl -- Why don't you turn this incredibly rich material into a book? Consider this post an outline, and flesh it out with all your other American cultural connectivity. You'll be famous.
posted by Faze at 12:26 PM on September 15, 2005


John the Revelator + Harry Smith = Nick Cave & Kate and Anna McGarrigle

(Recorded by me on July 2, 1999, at the Meltdown festival in London. Apologies for the noise artefacts at the start.)
posted by prolific at 12:26 PM on September 15, 2005


I first fell in love with this song years and years ago via a collection called: The Slide Guitar: Bottles, Knives, and Steel. There is another wonderful song by Blind Willie Johnson just before this one, all about the omniscience and omnipresence of God in the universe. But I didn't know all of this about him.

Thanks for the post and background.
posted by jfwlucy at 12:41 PM on September 15, 2005


what Mr. Faze said
posted by matteo at 12:50 PM on September 15, 2005


I am truly blown away.
posted by grateful at 12:57 PM on September 15, 2005


Props to y2karl. This more than makes up for the eyestrain some of your crazily complex tiny-font political posts have given me in the past.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:59 PM on September 15, 2005


[this is good]

PSST! Don't tell him to write a book! Then he won't be able to post stuff here! *thwap*
posted by loquacious at 1:22 PM on September 15, 2005


Another wow from me.
posted by scody at 1:47 PM on September 15, 2005


well, what the hell. i have been driving around with a box fulla country blues I taped from the library twenty five years ago and listening druing the commute, including some Blind Willie Johnson.

Hats off, karl. Come down and nosh the Ethiopian with us on Oct. 1.
posted by mwhybark at 1:48 PM on September 15, 2005


What can I say except DADF#AD.

You certainly can, and Messrs Cooder and Johnson possibly did. Try it in CGCGCE, though (it works just as well). Oooh.

It was one of those blues tracks that Peelie played late at night once, that scared the life out of me.
posted by Grangousier at 2:19 PM on September 15, 2005


Lyrics to Tom Waits' "Georgia Lee," a sad but inspired song from the absolutely wonderful Mule Variations:

Cold was the night, hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
Lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She's too young to be out
On the street.

Why wasn't God watching?
Why wasn't God listening?
Why wasn't God there for
Georgia Lee?

Ida said she couldn't keep Georgia
From dropping out of school
I was doing the best that I could
But she kept runnin away from this world
These children are so hard to raise good

Why wasn't God watching?
Why wasn't God listening?
Why wasn't God there for
Georgia Lee?

Close your eyes and count to ten
I will got and hid but then
Be sure to find me. I want you to find me
And we'll play all over
We will play all over again

There's a toad in the witch grass
There's a crow in the corn
Wild flowers on a cross by the road
And somewhere a baby is crying
For her mom
As the hills turn from green back
To gold

Why wasn't God watching?
Why wasn't God listening?
Why wasn't God there for
Georgia Lee?
posted by scarabic at 2:33 PM on September 15, 2005


Oodles of kudos, y2karl.

Show 'em how it's done, chi'l.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:48 PM on September 15, 2005


I just wanted to point out this bit from the Kay-Uwe Graw's tablature of Johnson's Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground):

|-------\2p0--/4s2s4-s-7-s-9-s-2-p-0-------
|----------------------------------------------------
|----------------------------------------------------
|------------------------------------0----0---------
|---------------------------------------0-----------
|--------------0-----------------------------0------
hahaho why


Note where he picks the high E and packs in five notes in one smooth legato slide--a feat impossible for me and, I dare say, beyond the capacity of most mortals. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt can do it on his Mohan Veena. Johnson, on the other hand, most likely was playing something like a Silvertone guitar from Sears.
posted by y2karl at 3:25 PM on September 15, 2005 [1 favorite]


Astonishing song. I heard it on one the episodes of the Blues series on PBS (I believe it was the one directed by Wim Wenders) and went crazy trying to find out what it was simply so I could listen to it again and again and try to make sense of why it was so heartbreakingly moving and utterly transporting. I've never had a greater feeling that someone is communicating from a different plane.

Anyhow If you like Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground give Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet by Gavin Bryers a listen...it has a similiar unearthly power to it.

Nice post.
posted by Skygazer at 3:34 PM on September 15, 2005


superb post, thank you.

Wim de Bie, a famous dutch blogger once had an amazing telephone conversation with Ry Cooder.

(real media content in the second link, excuse his english but _do_ listen)
posted by Substrata at 4:05 PM on September 15, 2005


wow

I'm going to be up for hours tonight, digesting this. Thank you.
posted by reflecked at 4:07 PM on September 15, 2005


I've had that Gavin Bryars piece since it first came out on record. The original is simply a wonder.

The Wenders film was The Soul Of A Man. I wish I could say that I liked it but all the contemporary cover versions annoyed me. Christ, there's ample footage of SKip James, say--so why did we have to get stuck with Lucinda Williams singing Devil Got My Woman ? As for Dark Was The Night, Wenders only played clips of the song, which irked the Hell out of me.

I had the same problem with The Aristocrats--after going on and on about the version Gilbert Gottfried did at the Friar's Roast for Hugh Hefner, they show a couple of brief clips and then cut to people telling you how great he was. Put a sock in it, people, I wanted to see the whole bit !
posted by y2karl at 4:18 PM on September 15, 2005


Excuse me if I haven't adequately scoured the post, but is there an mp3 of this dang thing in there somewhere? I mean besides this one? Because that one is nice, but not so superlatively transcendent as all that.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:19 PM on September 15, 2005


There are several. Try the second paragraph of the first comment--the one that begins Now, as to clips of the song, the patient can find a number of versions of the song for a start.
posted by y2karl at 4:26 PM on September 15, 2005


Wow, impressive stuff, y2karl. I've got some reading and listening to do when I get home tonight.
posted by fenriq at 4:36 PM on September 15, 2005


Excellent post, and all I can add is - isn't Ry Cooder one of the most extraordinary people on the face of the earth? Fantastic musician and always finding and giving other incredible musicians their due.
posted by jasper411 at 4:48 PM on September 15, 2005


Y2Karl, thanks, got it! ("Now, as to clips of the song" was jammed up, but the nine-minute-in radio show worked.)
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:59 PM on September 15, 2005


This is fantastic.

(It would be even better if there was a direct mp3 download somewhere, though--I realise nothing post-Mickey Mouse will ever lose copyright in the US, but I'm pretty sure the song must be public domain *somewhere*--and if it's good enough to represent Earth on the Voyager record, surely it's good enough to belong to all of us?)
posted by arto at 6:08 PM on September 15, 2005


isn't Ry Cooder one of the most extraordinary people ...

Well, yeah. He played with Captain Beefheart didn't he?
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:57 PM on September 15, 2005


there is a version available from emusic, which has at least two yazoo CDs of Blind Willie Johnson
posted by alloneword at 11:52 PM on September 15, 2005


I got it from iTunes.
posted by obloquy at 1:29 AM on September 16, 2005


Get your own blog, fu--no, hang on, this is good.
posted by salmacis at 2:10 AM on September 16, 2005


Thanks, y2karl.
posted by safetyfork at 10:19 AM on September 16, 2005


In 1957, Samuel Charters combined interviews garnered in search for Blind Willie Johnson and select 78s from the huge collection of 78s Harry Smith had earlier sold to Moe Asch--the same collection from which the songs for The Anthology Of American Folk Music were selected--to make Blind Willie Johnson: His Story Told, Annotated and Documented , now available on custom CD or cassette from the Smithsonian. Of the interview with Angeline Johnson, his second wife, of which the sample provded is of her singing a bit of Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground. For what it's worth, however, no one but Johnson sang on the version he recorded in December of 1927 and the woman who sang with Johnson on the other songs he recorded at the same session at which Darkwas recorded was Willie B. Harris and not Angeline Johnson.

Found that via this IGS Guitar Forum thread.
posted by y2karl at 10:48 PM on September 16, 2005


Regarding lining out:

A chance visit to a black Baptist church in Alabama led Ruff to discover that some congregations were still "lining out" in the Deep South. This is a call and response form of worship where a precentor sings the first line of a psalm and the congregation follows.

Ruff had thought that this ancient form of worship, which predated the Negro spiritual, had died out. But then he discovered that the practise was still going strong among white, Gaelic speaking congregations in the Western Isles. His investigations also took him to a white congregation in Kentucky.

"This is the only show in town. I've found three congregations who still line out as their sole form of worship," Ruff says. "But what it proves is there is cultural transference. When I spoke to black congregations about lining out they said it came from the slave days. But once they heard whites - both American and Scots - it became clear it was more complicated than that.

"While black culture and worship does come from Africa, there were elements that were imposed by the whites, but they took this and 'blackened' it."

Lining out - or "precenting the line" - had been commonplace throughout Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th century. At a time of low literacy rates and high costs of prayer books it had become an easy way to teach and distribute the word of God.

The English brought precenting the line to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The Highlanders, along with Puritans and Baptists, also took it to the New World, and it was widely practised by the frontiersmen, planters and adventurers who carvedout what is the modern US. Eventually it fizzled out in most areas, but the tradition had been kept alive in the remote communities of the Western Isles, as it had in the rural areas of the Deep South.

Ruff discovered a church in Alabama where blacks worshipped in Gaelic as late as 1918, giving a clue to the extent to which the Gaels spread their culture - from North Carolina to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi - as they prospered on the back of slavery and moved to bigger and better plantations. It was perhaps a refusal to move with the times and the remoteness of the communities which has ensured the survival of precenting the line.

posted by techgnollogic at 10:19 AM on September 17, 2005


So Blind Willie was a total mystery, but he had written some great songs, one in particular, "Dark Was the Night," that I had at one point selected and used as temp music for Paris, Texas when I first showed the film to Ry Cooder. I had indicated to Ry that a bottleneck guitar style was what I would love to hear on the film somehow. Ry was very taken by the idea. He knew that song really well; actually, he had recorded it once himself. The theme of "Dark Was the Night" eventually became the main musical theme of Paris, Texas.

PBS The Soul Of A Man Interview with Wim Wenders
posted by y2karl at 1:37 PM on September 17, 2005


Here are a few more things:

Columbia 14303 Nobody's Fault But Mine/Dark Was The Night--Cold Was The Ground was reviewed when it came out in Bookman magazine by an Edward Niles,, who described the disc as violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans and his inspired guitar playing in a primitive and frightening Negro religious song.

That's according to the next to last link's bio of Johnson in the first comment and this page on the Holy Blues.

On related secular song styles. here is Elijah Wald, author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues:

Hollers, Moans and "Deep Blues"

Along with what was played by professional musicians, there was a rich African American folk tradition, music non-professionals made for their own pleasure. Sometimes confused with blues, this music was far older and more deeply African, and in many cases had little to do with the most popular blues styles.


From The Library of Congress's Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip, here are the search pages for

Hollers

Moans

Religious Songs

Here is a tab for It's Nobody's Fault But Mine and Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning from Index of /striders/Tabs.

The blind, Depression-era blues artists were the blues. Everyone else was fake. By my logic, however, if Blind Willie had received his just rewards as an artist, his music would have lost its authenticity. My blues men had to suffer. Without the proof that their lives offered that the world was cruel and unfair, what would they (and I) have to be blue about?

In the tragic kingdom that I made of the early blues, Blind Willie Johnson reigned supreme. The cruelty of Willie Johnson's life was as extreme as anything in Grimms' fairy tales. His mother died when he was an infant and his father married a woman who had so little patience with children that she threw a cauldron of boiling lye in young Willie's face, blinding him for life. Like many blind black children in the 1930s, Willie Johnson took the only career path that was open to him: he became an itinerant musician. He played on the streets all his life and died of pneumonia after sleeping on wet newspapers in a burned out building.

Willie Johnson's voice is unlike anything in twentieth century music: a hoarse, rough, brackish sound, shrouded in darkness and shot through with dazzling flashes of tenderness and love. Despite his near-perfect qualifications as a blues man, Johnson chose to sing gospel. Unlike Willie McTell, who shaped his repertoire to his audience and sang blues in the juke joints and gospel in the churches, Willie Johnson sang only gospel music.

Blind Willie's gospel is, nonetheless, as blue as any sanctified music has ever been. "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" is, according to your point of view, either the greatest piece of music recorded in the twentieth century or three minutes of incomprehensible moaning over acoustic slide guitar. Either way, there is nothing else in the history of African-American music remotely like it. The song's lyric, "Dark was the night, Cold was the ground, When they laid my Savior down", imagines the mourners at Christ's tomb. Johnson's version abandons the lyric entirely for a wordless, grieving moan that cannot be described or explained, only heard. It is hard to imagine that the "darkness" Willie evokes on this song was not drawn from the permanent night of his own blindness.


That's Michael Stephens of Pop Matters recalling the foolish notions of his younger days regarding the blues in Blind Boy Blues.

He touches on something I have often thought about--how Blind Willie Johnson's blindness affected his music and how his ear and proprioceptive sense informed his playing.. I try to make a point of playing my take of Dark Was The Night with my eyes closed now and then. It does add a new dimension to playing it to my mind.

God, I found so much looking up this one song...
posted by y2karl at 10:07 PM on September 17, 2005


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