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Artist’s Choice: Michael Bates on Blind Willie Johnson

Gospel singer, slide guitarist, game changer

Discovered late one night while tuning into WKCR in New York, the music of Blind Willie Johnson immediately became an obsession. I sat transfixed by the power and devotion in his voice, his deep rhythmic pocket and, above all, the ferocity in his guitar playing. Willie Johnson (b. 1897) was a gospel singer and slide guitarist who spent most of his life preaching and singing in the streets of several Texas cities. He went blind at age 7, died at 45 and recorded only 29 tunes. Despite the relatively small output, I feel he occupies a space alongside the greatest-I’m thinking of musicians like Wayne Shorter, Dmitri Shostakovich, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Each one’s music evokes an immediate and visceral reaction with every listen-they altered the course of music. The mystery in what they do is profound and I’m always thrilled to hear them. So while I’m inspired by countless musicians, peers and otherwise, the artists above are the “ones” and Blind Willie Johnson was a game changer.

“Jesus Make up My Dying Bed”

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia ‎C2K 52835, Legacy ‎C2K 52835

Johnson had two distinct approaches to vocalizing and many different variations. This track is an example of his low “throaty growl.” It is a hugely resonant sound with a sharp attack that cuts through the speakers with vehemence. His entrance is startlingly vicious and that one-of-a-kind phrasing is clearly evident on how he sings: “Dyin’ will be easy, ahhh ahhh.” It’s a sound that I’m compelled to listen to over and over again.

(Oddly enough, I’m reminded of Wayne Shorter’s solo on “Night Dreamer” here, one of his most soulful. The connection in timbre and texture is striking. And while Wayne is certainly using similar language, I think it’s the focus on the lower register of the horn and how both musicians resolve phrases.)

“God Moves on the Water”

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia C2K 52835, Legacy ‎C2K 52835

This track focuses on the incredible feel that Mr. Johnson brought to slide guitar playing. He was master of getting an array of sounds from the instrument and that one man could; with a voice and a guitar and slide, create such a dense texture of four parts is wondrous. Here, he interlocks his voice with a super funky bass line surrounded by some very inventive melodic and rhythmic counterpoint.

Blind Willie Johnson’s time was deep. As most musicians know, playing in “time” and playing with a “feel” are related but different pursuits. This is an excellent example. He lays back in spots for effect and the music breathes wonderfully.

“Soul of a Man”

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia ‎C2K 52835, Legacy ‎C2K 52835

Without a doubt, Blind Willie Johnson left an indelible mark on the blues but interestingly didn’t play very many blues forms and identified instead as a gospel singer. “Soul of a Man” is the first track of Johnson’s that I transcribed and another gem in terms of groove, especially on a syncopated counter melody on the B section. The form moves between the I chord to the IV chord but it feels like so much more. There is such a story in how he shapes the lyrics and while the form is simple, his variations on the rhythm are not.

“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia ‎C2K 52835, Legacy ‎C2K 52

I heard this piece not knowing anything of its historical significance* but only that it spoke deeply to me: a rubato drone with a spellbinding, wordless melody. It is cathartic, honest and chilling and a true example of how a message can be sent in music without words. I equate it with “Psalm” and “Alabama” by John Coltrane or even “Lonely Woman” by Ornette Coleman. I have so many questions about this piece but perhaps that’s for another time. It’s pure music.

*This track was sent into space on the 1977 Voyager mission; it was embedded on a gold record with 27 other tracks representing the diversity of life on earth. It has also been referred to as “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.”

“Bye and Bye I’m Goin’ to See the King”

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia ‎C2K 52835, Legacy ‎C2K 52

A deeply religious man, this song visits familiar topic matter for Johnson and the impact is heightened by the serenity in his voice. It’s such a contrast to other tracks on the record. This time he uses a clearer inflection and his complete devotion to the message is apparent. A tune that starts with lovely calm and builds to a joyful apex, “Goin’ to See the King” is a highlight. I love the way he replaces the lyrics with his slide playing.

Truly a one-of-a-kind musician, I could easily wade through all of the 29 tracks he recorded. In fact, I’ve unofficially done it many times and it’s blissful. Blind. Willie. Johnson. Thanks for the music.

Bassist/composer Michael Bates’ ninth album, Northern Spy, was released May 26th on the Stereoscopic label. It features Michael Blake on saxophone and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons.

Originally Published