11 songs – 42 minutes
71 years after his death at the age of just 48, having recorded only 30 tracks for Columbia Records in a three period from 1927 to 1930, and leaving only a single photograph of himself, Blind Willie Johnson remains the gold standard of bottleneck guitar playing. He put such a distinctive individual stamp on his music that it is easy to forget that the majority of his repertoire comprised traditional gospel songs, religious hymns and old “Negro spirituals”. When the space probe Voyager 1 was launched in 1977, it contained a record of some of the greatest recorded music on Planet Earth, as a representation of our highest artistic achievements. The recorded included (amongst others) Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F”, the Australian aboriginal songs “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird”, the Indian raga, “Jaat Kahan Ho” – and Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night – Cold Was The Ground”, an apt acknowledgement of his other-worldly touch, tone, and searing emotional honesty. No less an authority than Ry Cooder has called this track “the most transcendent piece in all American music.”
Now producer Jeffrey Gaskill has released a tribute to Johnson, featuring a number of contemporary roots music’s finest artists covering 11 different Johnson songs, and the result is simply outstanding. Tom Waits, whose thunderous gravel voice carries echoes of Johnson’s own ragged and intense tenor vocals, contributes “The Soul Of A Man” and “John The Revelator.” Lucinda Williams lends her tired and weary voice to “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “God Don’t Never Change.” Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi opt for a relatively faithful interpretation of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” while the Cowboy Junkies produce a remarkable version of “Jesus Is Coming Soon” that mixes samples of Johnson’s original with a modern rock edge to produce something wonderful and quite unique.
Johnson refused to play blues music, singing only religious songs, although the call and response of gospel music was at the heart of his music as well as many blues songs of the era, a fact emphasized by The Blind Boys of Alabama’s reading of “Motherless Children Have A Hard Time” and Sinead O’Connor’s reading of “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” as it slowly builds to its powerful climax. There are surprises on the album too, such as Luther Dickinson’s version of “Bye And Bye I’m Going To See The King”, which features the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band to lend a lean Mississippi edge. Maria McKee highlights the optimism in “Let Your Light Shine On Me” with glorious barrel house piano joining in half-way through and Rickie Lee Jones taps into Johnson’s loneliness and desperation in the gloriously worn reading of “Dark Was The Night” that closes the set.
Gaskill deserves great credit for pulling this project together. While Johnson’s own timeless and impassioned performances may never be bettered, his popularity for some reason remains significantly less than that of his near-contemporary and namesake, Robert. With luck, this release will help to direct new listeners to some of the greatest music ever recorded. For anyone who already knows and loves the music of Blind Willie Johnson, this record is a not only a fitting and loving tribute to the man, but also a superb CD that stands on its own merits. An essential purchase.