Monday, January 11, 2010

The Pure Grain of the Voice: Blind Willie Johnson

Walt Whitman once wrote that “a perfect writer would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with cavalry or infantry, or do any thing, that man or woman or the natural powers can do.” But I’ve also heard singers who can achieve that same kind of alchemy. They take you past style, technique, even past the song itself, so that you become moved by the pure grain of the voice.

When I was writing about Don Van Vliet (i.e. Captain Beefheart) in my book Trout Mask Replica, which was about his strange and incomparable 1969 album, I was trying to get inside what made his voice, a lascivious growl straight out of the blues, so pure, so compelling. Some people said they heard Howlin’ Wolf, a singer whose power Robyn Hitchcock once compared to a DC3. There were others who insisted that he was possessed by the raucous spirit of Richard Berry (not the Berry of “Louie Louie,” but the sly narrator of the Robins’ hit “Riot on Cell Block #9”). Others detected a little Muddy Waters, maybe a pinch of the attitude of Charley Patton, possibly the jagged rhythms of Robert Pete Williams. Not bad company and not entirely wrong. But, for me, Beefheart’s voice didn’t bring to mind influences as it did of a man inhabited by a spirit. “I was never influenced,” he once said. “Possessed, but never influenced.” Which is why when I was listening to Trout Mask Replica, I heard the soul of the Texas-born gospel/blues singer Blind Willie Johnson haunting the record. Johnson’s voice, possessed of an unearthly power, holds an unfathomable mystery in its texture, as does Beefheart’s singing on Trout Mask.

Many know Blind Willie Johnson through Led Zeppelin (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “In My Time of Dying”), Eric Clapton (“Motherless Children”), or Ry Cooder’s main title music for Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas (1984). But no cover version ever came close to the Penecostal fire of Johnson’s originals. Johnson was born in 1897 in Brenham, Texas, and earned his name when, according to legend, his mother threw lye in his face to avenge a beating she took from his father. Undaunted, Johnson taught himself to play a distinctive bottleneck guitar. He first performed at Church meetings until Columbia Records signed him to make a series of recordings between 1927 and 1930. Johnson recorded nothing but religious songs, but he stripped them of all piety. He sang with an intensity known only to the blues, but his raspy gospel tenor often took flight, lost control, and rode out the contours in the space his voice opened up. The force of his singing was so great that he was once arrested in New Orleans for causing a riot. Apparently, when he sang his version of the story of Samson and Delilah (“If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down”), some people were inspired to dismantle the hall.

In song after song, Johnson told Biblical tales, from “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” to “John the Revelator,” posing as many questions as he offered up answers. Each track spoke apocalyptic fire while delving into riddles and stories of unending spiritual quests. Each song plumbed the depths of an eternal question that Johnson would ask most explicitly in “Soul of a Man” (“I want somebody to tell me/Just what is the soul of a man?”). The question may have been basic, but Johnson’s query consistently had a sense of urgent drama suggesting that knowledge of this question just wasn’t enough. In “Dark Was the Night (Cold was the Ground),” the ultimate story of the crucifixion, he didn’t even use words. Over the slow whine of his guitar, Johnson quietly moans and wails the dark mystery of Jesus’s last night on the cross, as if by describing the event in words he would diminish that fateful event. Johnson knew the story so intimately that, perhaps approximating his own blindness, he deprived us of a way of seeing, a language in which to explain it. Yet without words, the song became more cryptic, eerie, and otherworldly to experience.

On the Voyager 1, launched by NASA in 1977, among collections of ancient chants, sound effects, and sublime recordings by Bach and Beethoven, astronomer Carl Sagan wisely included Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night (Cold was the Ground).” Who knows? Someday Johnson’s enigmatic story may be heard by some extraterrestrial life curiously encountering that space probe. Maybe they’ll even wonder, as they listen intently, just what is the soul of a man?

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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