A Journal Of The Dark Arts
This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. — U.S. president Jimmy Carter
Blind Willie Johnson’s music, hurtling into TransPlutonian Space suggests the limits the classicism, how there is more to life than just logic, just the Western ideal of beauty. His music is a time capsule of the suffering of African Americans, around the turn of the 20th Century. From a poor begging busker, singing religious tunes with a tin cup wired to his guitar, to infinity and beyond. A pinnacle and an encapsulation of the Human experience, in microtones and offbeats. A championing of the soul.
On Sept. 12, 2013, NASA announced that the Voyager I & II space probes had left the Solar System and entered interstellar space, becoming the farthest man-made objects from Earth.
Contained within the Voyager I probe was a golden record, a time capsule and a message in a bottle, to tell the Human story to extraterrestrial species.
“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” Thus the record is best seen as a time capsule or a symbolic statement more than a serious attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life.
– Carl Sagan
Locked within the grooves of this golden platter are 116 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as thunder, wind, rain & surf. There’s greetings spoken in 55 different languages. There was also a 90-minute selection of music, from a cross-section of cultures. Tucked alongside the cultural high-water marks of Bach‘s Brandenburg Concertos, the first movement of Beethoven‘s Fifth Symphony and Stravinsky‘s The Rites Of Spring, along with the sci-fi murmurations of Laurie Spiegel‘s Harmonices Mundi, was the sound of a lonesome slide-guitar and a wordless keening moan was chosen to represent loneliness. Blind Willie Johnson‘s Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground‘s inclusion on the Voyager Golden Record says a lot about 20th Century music, about the African American experience, about the Blues, and what it means to be a musical obsessive in this day and age.
Recorded on Dec. 3, 1927, Dark Was The Night… was one of the first sides Blind Willie Johnson would record for Columbia Records, who had a travelling field unit to record local talent. Blind Willie eventually recorded 30 sides for them, between 1927 – 1930, which performed well, outselling popular Country Blues artists like Bessie Smith.
From the wiki article:
Dark Was The Night is written in open D slide tuning, and features Blind Willie’s self-taught pen-knife slide style, which was meant to evoke the feeling of the night they buried Jesus, before any intimation of his return. It is a feeling of loss, of lack, of hopelessness and despair, before the return of the sun, of Hope, with the resurrection. Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground was praised at the time of it’s release by the influential blues critic Edward Abbe Niles in his column for The Bookman, praising his “violent, tortured, and abysmal shouts and groans, and his inspired guitar playing”. Jack White called Dark Was The Night “the greatest slide guitar ever recorded”. Francis Davis, author of The History of the Blues concurs, writing “In terms of its intensity alone—its spiritual ache—there is nothing else from the period to compare to Johnson’s ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’, on which his guitar takes the part of a preacher and his wordless voice the part of a rapt congregation.” Music historian Mark Humphrey describes Johnson’s composition as an impressionistic rendition of “lining out”, a call-and-response style of singing hymns that is common in southern African-American churches.
The song, and Blind Willie Johnson’s entire recorded legacy have had a widespread impact and enduring legacy. He was one of the main inspirations of guitar hotshot/Zappa + Beefheart affiliate Ry Cooder. Several of his songs would work his way into the Grateful Dead live sets, with his version of “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down,” mutating into the Dead’s “Sampson And Delilah”; they also played his version of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”. His acapella version of the apocalyptic “John The Revelator” would be covered by another Blues great, Son House, which would go on to be covered by countless others, including Nick Cave and Depeche Mode. He was also a formative influence on the other Blind Willie, Blind Willie McTell, who supposedly knew and played with the Texas bluesman.
Like most/all of the music featured on Forestpunk, Blind Willie Johnson’s music lives at the crossroads (the true home of the blues); between sinner and preacher, between rural and urban, between the dust and sci-fi, between pastoralism and dark ambient. It can even be seen as an intersection between folk and classical, due to it’s inclusion on the Voyager record, and the fact that the apocalyptic chamber ensemble The Kronos Quartet covered Dark Was The Night for a compilation of the same name.
Listening, reading, learning peels back the layers, and reveals invaluable insight for the aspiring musician and cultural critic; acting as a time capsule of it’s own.
Like many people reading this blog, i listen to, as well as make, a tremendous amount of electronic music, which has some of the most fertile and creative scenes in modern music. Programming electronic music means you’ve got to come to grips with the grid, the subdivision of 16th notes between the downbeats. How you divide yr beats is what makes yr music unique, decides what kind of music yr trying to make. And if you’ve ever attempted it, i’m sure i’m not telling you anything you don’t know when i say that programming organic, fluid music is DAMN HARD. Its all about the in-between notes, the offbeats, the shades of gray. It breaks down to that elusive quality of soul, and that is a major component of what the Forestpunk mission is all about: finding the soul in the machine, or wherever it may lie.
The main thing that struck me, listening to BWJ these past couple of days, is the natural way his guitar and voice intertwine. Listening to these classic sides is a revelation and raises the bar for electronic musicians, to try harder, to make a more seamless juxtaposition between samples and live recordings. Or perhaps yr a samplist, an instrumental beatsmith, looking for raw samples, unusual textures and grooves. To try and nick some of these instrumental passages suggests the limits of the grid, and what true art comes from masterful collage. In short: Blind Willie Johnson asks us to try harder, to feel more, to engage more with our music, to make something more personal. Something from the soul.
To learn more:
For those looking to get into Blind Willie Johnson’s music, i’d recommend Rough Guide To Blind Willie Johnson (180 Gram LP + MP3)), reissued on lovely 180-g Vinyl + mp3.
For the completist, try Complete Recordings of Blind Willie Johnson, which has all of his known recordings.
You can also find some of his songs on this massive evolving volk playlist, which features a lot of the music we’ve been writing about this week, as well as it’s roots and influences. This is an on-going project, so subscribe to stay tuned!