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December 7, 2010

'Violent, Tortured and Abysmal Shouts & Groans'

Terrific article in Texas Monthly about Blind Willie Johnson's music and faith

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When NASA launched the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft in 1977 on a mission to gather information from the planets, and even beyond our solar system, they included some information about Earthlings -- just in case any intelligent life out there intercepted the craft(s).

A recording included some 90 minutes of music from around the world, including a Cavatina from Beethoven as the concluding piece. The next-to-last piece was Blind Willie Johnson's “Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground,” which a marvelous article in TexasMonthly describes like this:

"[It's] a largely wordless hymn built around the yearning cries of Johnson’s slide guitar and the moans and melodies of his voice. The two musical elements track each other, finishing each other’s phrases; Johnson hums fragments of the diffuse melody, then answers with the fluttering sighs of steel or glass moving over the strings. Sometimes the guitar jimmies a low, ascending melody that sounds like a man trying to climb out of a mud hole. Then the guitar goes up high, playing an inquisitive, hopeful line, and the voice goes high too, copying the melody. There’s no meter or rhythm. In fact, 'Dark Was the Night' sounds less like a song than a scene—the Passion of Jesus, his suffering on the cross, the ultimate pairing of despair and belief. The original melody and lyrics (“Dark was the night and cold was the ground, on which the Lord was laid”) may have originated in eighteenth-century England, but Johnson reinvented them. Occasionally his slide clicks against the neck of the guitar, and you remember that this was just a man playing a song in front of a microphone. You can hear the air in the room. You can hear the longing in his voice. This is what it sounds like to be a human being.

"The slide guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, who used 'Dark Was the Night' as the motif for his melancholy sound track to Paris, Texas, once called the song “the most transcendent piece in all American music.” In about 60,000 years, one of the Voyagers just might enter another solar system. Maybe it will be intercepted. Maybe the interceptors will figure out how to play that record. Maybe they’ll hear 'Dark Was the Night.' Maybe they’ll wonder, What kind of creature made that music?"

It's a fascinating profile about a great American musician who was "an utter mystery" because very little has ever been written about him. The Bookman, a New York literary review, once wrote that Johnson was Johnson was “apparently a religious fanatic,” also noting his “violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans and his inspired guitar.”
Check out the whole story here, and listen to "Dark Was the Night" below:

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