Milestone Recordings in American Music

3/8/09

Texas Passion (1928)

Although mostly seen as secular music, there is a strong tradition of spirituality in the blues. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Texas, where artists like Blind Willie Johnson created a dazzling body of work that perfectly bridged the gap between gospel and blues.

Blind Willie Johnson
If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down(Columbia 14343-D, 1928)

Texas blues musicians were known for big, expressive voices, but perhaps none more so than Blind Willie Johnson, a preacher and street musician who sang gospel music with a decidedly blues feel. Johnson endured almost unfathomable hardships in his life: he was blinded by his stepmother, who threw lye in his face as a child; and he subsequently spent his entire life in and out of poverty before dying of pneumonia one winter while living in the ashes of his burned-down house. But despite his troubles, his faith remained strong and compelled him to make some of the most incredible music ever recorded.

This song is Johnson’s retelling of the Samson and Delilah story from the Bible, and is one of the best examples of Johnson’s distinct, gravel-voiced delivery. Compared to the sublime beauty of his most famous record, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” the impact of his voice here may be jarring, but it is every bit as amazing. He opens the song with a chorus sung in a deep growl, then switches to a conventional, subdued voice for the first verse. He sounds quite good doing so, as he recounts the basic facts of the story. As he hits the chorus, however, his voice again rises and from that point on he stays at an emotional high and maintains the growling, passionate voice. It makes for quite exciting story-telling.

Johnson picks guitar in the conventional way here, rather than playing slide. While his guitar picking doesn’t follow the jazzy template of his Texas contemporaries like Blind Lemon Jefferson, it is nonetheless solid and serves to create a fast-paced, compelling rhythm that adds to the excitement.

~ You may also like: Blind Willie Johnson, “I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuge” (Columbia 14391-D, 1929)

Blind Willie Johnson
Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground(Columbia 14303-D, 1928)

Listen to this record and you will immediately feel the power of Johnson’s delivery. There are no words in the song, just amazing slide guitar and impassioned moaning. It is utterly mesmerizing, and one of the most emotionally charged performances you will ever hear. Johnson wanted to capture the emotion of the crucifixion of Christ, and his wordless blues tribute may just do better justice to it than any hymn ever written. Johnson was one of the first great slide guitarists, using a piece of metal (in Johnson’s case, probably a knife) held against the strings to alter the guitar’s pitch mid-note. Here, he makes the notes sing and cry with the same stirring passion as his voice, and it makes for an unbelievable, otherworldly experience.

~ You may also like: Blind Willie Johnson, “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” (Columbia 14276-D, 1928)

Blind Lemon Jefferson
See That My Grave Is Kept Clean(Paramount 12608, 1928)

As he did with most of his spiritually-oriented material, Lemon Jefferson originally recorded this song under the pseudonym “Deacon L. J. Bates” (Paramount 12585, 1927). That record proved such a hit that he re-recorded it and released it under his own name in 1928. This recording contains what may be Jefferson’s best vocal performance. His voice is as amazingly expressive as ever, but it is much more moderated, avoiding the rowdy highs of his more secular recordings and allowing Jefferson to beautifully convey the depth of emotion in the song. His guitar work, too, is more subtle. The improvised variations are still there, but they serve to underscore the vocals rather than competing with them for attention. Even with a more subdued role, however, there are still some wonderful guitar touches, such as when Jefferson plays only a couple of sustained low notes at the end to imitate the ringing of church bells. Sadly, this song would turn out to be prophetic, as Jefferson would die (of causes unknown) the following year at the age of 35.

~ You may also like: Blind Lemon Jefferson, “One Dime Blues” (Paramount 12578, 1927)

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