Blind Willie Johnson was an American gospel blues singer-guitarist and evangelist. He is regarded as one of the greatest bottleneck slide guitarists. Yet the Texas street-corner evangelist is known as much for the his powerful and fervent gruff voice as he is for his ability as a guitarist. He most often sang in a rough, bass voice (only occasionally delivering in his natural tenor) with a volume meant to be heard over the sounds of the streets.
Early life and career
Johnson was born on January 25, 1897, in Pendleton, Texas, a small town near Waco, to sharecropper George Johnson (also identified as Willie Johnson Sr.) and his wife Mary Fields, who died in 1901. His family, which according to blues historian Steven Calt included at least one younger brother named Carl, moved to the agriculturally rich community of Marlin, where Johnson spent most of his childhood. There, the Johnson family attended church—most likely the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church—every Sunday, a practice which had a lasting impact on Johnson and fueled his desire to be ordained as a Baptist minister. When Johnson was five years old, his father bestowed upon him his first instrument—a cigar box guitar.
Johnson was not born blind, though he was impaired with the disability at an early age. Although it is uncertain how he lost his sight, it is generally agreed upon by most biographers of Johnson that he was blinded by his step-mother when he was seven years old, a claim that was first made by Johnson’s purported widow Angeline Johnson. In her recollection, Willie Johnson’s father had violently confronted his step-mother about her infidelity, and during the argument she splashed Johnson with a caustic solution of lye water, permanently blinding him. Other theories have also been developed to explain Johnson’s visual impairment, including him wearing the wrong spectacles, seeing a partial solar eclipse that was observable over Texas in 1905, or a combination of the two conjectures.
While few other details are known about the singer’s childhood, at some point he met another blind musician named Madkin Butler, who had a powerful singing and preaching style that influenced Johnson’s own vocal delivery and repertoire. Adam Booker, a blind minister interviewed by blues historian Samuel Charters in the 1950s, recalled that Johnson would perform religious songs on street corners while visiting his father in Hearne with a tin cup tied to the neck of his Stella guitar to collect money. Occasionally, Johnson would play on the same street as Blind Lemon Jefferson, but the extent of the two songsters’ involvement with each other is unknown. In 1926 or early 1927, Johnson established an unregistered marriage with Willie B. Harris, who occasionally sang on the street with him and at benefits for the Marlin Church of God in Christ with Johnson accompanied on piano. From the relationship, Johnson had a daughter named Sam Faye Johnson Kelly in 1931. Blues guitarist L. C. Robinson’s sister Anne also claimed to have been married to Johnson in the late 1920s.
Johnson recorded a total of 30 songs during a three-year period (between 1927 and 1930) and many of these became classics of the gospel-blues, including “Jesus Make up My Dying Bed,” “God Don’t Never Change,” and his most famous, “Dark Was the Night — Cold Was the Ground.”
Even though Johnson’s records sold well, as a street performer and preacher he had little wealth in his lifetime. His life was poorly documented and open to speculation; however, over time music historians such as Samuel Charters have uncovered more about Johnson and his five recording sessions.
Johnson’s music experienced a revival which began in the 1960s following his inclusion on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and the efforts of blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. Over time, Johnson’s work has become more accessible through compilation albums such as Blind Willie Johnson 1927–1930 and The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, both spearheaded by Charters. As a result, Johnson is credited as one of the most influential practitioners of the blues and his slide guitar playing, particularly on his hymn “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, is highly acclaimed. Other recordings by Johnson include “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”, “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine”, and “John the Revelator”.
Later life and death
Johnson allegedly remarried, this time to Angeline Johnson, in the early 1930s, but, as with Harris, it is unlikely that the union was officially registered. Throughout the Great Depression and the 1940s, he performed in several cities and towns in Texas, including Beaumont. A city directory shows that in 1945, a Reverend W. J. Johnson—undoubtedly Blind Willie—operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, in Beaumont. In 1945, his home was destroyed by a fire, but, with nowhere else to go, Johnson continued to live in the ruins of his house where he was exposed to the humidity.
He contracted malarial fever, but no hospital would admit Johnson either because, as Angeline Johnson stated in an interview with Charters, of his visual impairment or because he was black. Over the course of the year, his condition steadily worsened until Johnson died on September 18, 1945. His death certificate also reported syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.
According to his death certificate, he was buried in Blanchette Cemetery, in Beaumont. The location of the cemetery had been forgotten until it was rediscovered in 2009. His grave site remains unknown, but the researchers who identified the cemetery erected a monument there in his honor in 2010.