Monday, May 1, 2017
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches
Gospel is Old English for good news, and the predominant message of much gospel music is indeed joy at an unquestioned salvation. The worshipper delights in every breath, since the future ultimately holds a sure deliverance. This theme and the ecstatic mood it may produce are prominent in the recordings of Blind Willie Johnson. Johnson’s bottleneck slide guitar work and growly intense vocals owe much to the blues, but many of his songs are nonetheless celebratory and optimistic. His vision includes, however, the suffering Christ no less than the risen Lord, and he offers the inspiration of Jesus’ model to believers who may have much to endure in their own lives. Sometimes, Johnson’s songs, whether traditional or original, reach further yet, to suggest an ultimate reality beyond joy and suffering, no less certain for being bound in mystery.
While the blues are largely concerned with pain, loneliness, and frustration, Johnson sings of his “joy and gladness in “Praise God I’m Satisfied.” Death is welcomed in the almost rollicking easy tones of “Bye And Bye I'm Goin' To See The King”: “And I don't mind dying, I'm a child of God.” A variety of ingenious figures of speech reinforce the point. In “It's Nobody's Fault But Mine” Christ appears as a benevolent bail bondsman, freeing the captive soul. “God don’t never change” offers the delightful image of the singer so consumed in divine worship that he can direct even a mountain to “skip around like a lamb.” The magical efficacy of Christ’s blood is affirmed in “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole.”  Sin and damnation play very little role in Johnson’s ministry, though in “If It Had Not Been For Jesus” the singer notes that Christ ”washed my black heart white” without further details.
Among the other songs with similar emphasis are “Let your light shine on me” with its claim that luminous “angels in heaven, done write my name,” “Trouble Will Soon Be Over,” “He’s my Bosom Friend,” “Sweeter as the Years Go By,” “Go With Me To That Land,” and “Church I'm Fully Saved Today.”
Pain and suffering, however, receive their due. The very heart of the Christian myth with its deity mysteriously combining divine and human natures emphasizes Jesus’ passion on the cross, the strongest available image of anguished torture. The believer’s own difficulties are given meaning while at the same time appearing less than his Lord’s. One may safely assume that Johnson’s African-American listeners had sufficient troubles of their own to identify readily with Christ.
Most profound of Johnson’s songs on this theme is doubtless “Dark was the night.” Johnson takes his opening line from a pre-existing hymn, then follows with a series of equally powerful images. I am reminded of Crashaw by “his sweat like drops of blood ran down.” These drops are mysteriously present in the Garden to which the sinner is directed. Ultimately the song teaches the imitation of Christ: “Learn of him the cross to bear.” “Jesus Make Up my Dying Bed” is an imaginative tour de force in which Christ is the singer’s spouse and the suffering of worshipper and worshipped are conflated.
Contemporary afflictions appear: the Titanic disaster in “God Moves On The Water” and WWI and Spanish flu in “Jesus Is Coming Soon.” Probably the most powerful metaphor for suffering, one appearing multiple times in both sacred and secular lyrics is the separation from God as loss of a loving parent in “Mother's Children Have A Hard Time” and “Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying.”
Thus Johnson’s lyrics, like the Psalms, chart the high and low of experience. There is a numinous glow, however, about Johnson’s religious vision, a sheen of mystery imponderable until the Apocalypse which has little to do with good and evil or pain and pleasure. I think, for instance, of the gloriously minimal miracle of “The Rain Don't Fall On Me,” the understated imagery of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning,” and the open-mouthed wonder of “The Soul Of A Man.” The culmination of this nearly occult aspect of the poet’s religious experience is surely the haunting “John the Revelator” which invokes the most spectacularly mystifying book of the Bible repeatedly as though its very mention is a magic charm. The song is made of this hypnotic iteration along with a few enigmatic symbols (“Judea’s Lion”) and an account of a theophany to Moses. This song is anticipated by the mention in “I'm Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge” of the “dragon hurled down by the preacher” with its specific scriptural reference.
Though a musical artist is hardly a theologian, gospel singers have always been inspired and motivated not only by their faith, but also by the approaches that have proven successful in appealing to an audience whose critical judgment is not suspended even in church. Willie Johnson’s oeuvre emphasizes the joy and confidence of salvation, with a darker shadow acknowledging suffering, then ornamented with a bit of mystery and magic. His message reached not only the streets and storefront churches, but into Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and new versions of his songs by Reverend Gary Davis, folk revival figures like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Fairport Convention, and Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as rockers like Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin.