Gary Golio with E.B. Lewis – Dark Was The Night
Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey To The Stars
Nancy Paulsen Books
32 pages Kindergarten – 3rd Grade
Gary Golio has authored a number of books for children that focus on musical legends like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. For his latest project, he chronicles the life and music of Blind Willie Johnson, a legendary guitarist, singer and songwriter, plus a story with a twist that will surely capture the imagination of the younger audience.
The story starts with Johnson’s birth in Texas in 1897, pictured being held in his sitting mother’s arms amidst bright colors. Turning the pages quickly moves him to getting a cigar box guitar from his father, his unexplained loss of sight, and then back into some semblance of light when he begins to let his voice ring out in church. Once he learned how to make his guitar sing by using his pocket knife as a slide, Johnson could play blues while singing with fervor equal to a Sunday preacher.
The next five double-page panels track Johnson’s life once he hit the road, making his way by train to different cities where he would busk on street corners to earn a living when he wasn’t singing in churches that welcomed his style of gospel music. Once he is heard by a representative of a record company, Johnson gets the chance to record, sitting in a dark recording studio, alone with his guitar making ageless music, music that brought joy and light to people who bought his records or heard them played on the radio.
One of his classic songs, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” finds him answering his mournful slide licks with otherworldly moans that delve deep into the emotions of loneliness and longing. As covered on the last two pages, the song was selected for inclusion on the “Golden Record,” a disc of music sent into space in 1977 on the Voyager I spacecraft, adding a fascinating twist to the tale. The record also included classical works, jazz, folk music,and a Chuck Berry tune.
Golio does a good job of telling Johnson’s story without getting lost in the details. The illustrator, E.B. Lewis, contributes some exceptional work, mixing bright colors and details on some panels, then using a more muted color scheme to remind readers of the darkness that Johnson lived in. It adds up to a book that would make a fine gift for a parent or grandparent searching for a way introduce a child to the joys of blues music. Picture yourself reading the book with a special family member, with Johnson’s slide guitar and moaning vocal as accompaniment, envisioning the record flying through space. Heartily recommended!
Note – this review was done with a PDF file, as the author & publisher were unable to supply a physical copy of the book for review purposes.