Blind Willie Johnson’s songbook is legendary.
Let’s begin with his very first studio session, December 3, 1927, at which he recorded the definitive early renditions of the gospel blues standards “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” and “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine.” Versions of the former followed by Charlie Patton in 1929 and Josh White in 1933, but the song is now best known as Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dyin’.” The latter has been continually re-arranged by everyone from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Nina Simone and Van Morrison. And, again, Led Zeppelin famously took a stab – as did The Staple Singers and the Grateful Dead. Beck also payed tribute in his similarly titled original on Mutations. Then there’s “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down,” another example of a Blind Willie song that’s been appropriated by the Staple Singers, the Grateful Dead and others.
At the same 1927 session Johnson also recorded “Motherless Children,” best known today for Eric Clapton’s version. More famous still is “John the Revelator,” which later became a Son House standard also covered by The White Stripes, Beck, REM, John Mellencamp, James Brown, Frank Black, Gov’t Mule, the Trey Anastasio Band and many more.
Jack White is arguably Willie’s most famous disciple. In addition to sticking “John the Revelator” into White Stripes original “Cannon,” with Meg he also covered “Jesus Make Up My Dyin Bed,” “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes,” “Lord, Send Me An Angel,” “Motherless Children” and “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” Jack has the most admiration for “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” though, which he deems “the greatest example of slide guitar ever recorded” and uses as the yardstick to measure all great guitar playing. Jack is far from alone in considering it a classic. The wordless hums and moans of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” are so legendary it was selected alongside works by Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky, and Chuck Berry for the Voyager Golden Record (launched on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 to alert the capabilities of humans to any aliens that may find it).
Sam Charter’s The Complete Blind Willie Johnson linear notes claim that by 1930 Johnson’s records such as “Soul of a Man” – another song title borrowed by Beck – were “selling almost twice as many copies as [“Empress of the Blues'” Bessie Smith, and three and four times as many as most of the country blues artists.” Perhaps that partly explains why even though Johnson is not a household name, so many of his songs have found new life in the catalogs of folk, blues and rock musicians. Peter, Paul, and Mary for example took “If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down” re-titled it “Samson and Delilah,” and in turn it became a signature Grateful Dead jam that’s also been played by Bruce Springsteen and others.
Now these songs and more will be interpreted once more by a range of artists for a 2012 tribute album, God Don’t Never Change:The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson. The crowd-funded album is a project of Jeffrey Gaskill (producer of Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan) and is seeking support via this Kickstarter campaign.[UPDATE – The fundraiser is completed and was a success]. The confirmed tracks on the album are listed below, not in the order they’ll appear on the album though:
- Tom Waits – Soul of a Man
- Tom Waits – John The Revelator
- Blind Boys of Alabama – Motherless Children
- Cowboy Junkies – Jesus Coming Soon
- Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi – Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning
- Lucinda Williams – Nobody’s Fault But Mine
- Luther Dickinson’s – Bye and Bye I’m Going to See the King
- Rickie Lee Jones – Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground
- Sinead O’Connor – Lord I Just Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes
If the famous versions of Blind Willie’s material collected in the videos below are any indication of the new covers, God Don’t Never Change:The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson will once again find new life in one of America’s most legendary songbooks.