The story goes that Willie’s stepmother was sleeping around. Willie’s father caught her with another man and beat her. Seven-year-old Willie Johnson became collateral damage—his stepmother splashed Willie in the eyes with lye water, blinding him for life. Another story places the blame for his blindness on gazing at a solar eclipse. Both stories might be true.
Blind Willie Johnson was born in 1897 in Pendleton, Texas. His father gave him a cigar box guitar when he was five. Willie began his musical journey playing church hymnals. After he lost his sight, Willie met another blind preacher/vocalist (Madkin Butler) who probably had an influence on his style.
That style included slide guitar skills (often performed with a pocketknife), a harsh “chest voice” (lower register singing with thick, low, warm tones), and an evangelical bent. Willie did most of his singing on street corners, which explains his vocal style—the sound was meant to travel outdoors without a microphone.
Willie’s recording career included 30 songs. His unique style caught the attention of blues critic Edward Abbe Niles, who praised his “violent, tortured, and abysmal shouts and groans, and his inspired guitar playing.”
Though Willie’s records sold reasonably well, the Great Depression finished his financial hopes. With no money and few prospects, he moved back to Texas to run a house of prayer. A fire burned his home, but he stayed on in the ruins, eventually contracting malarial fever. The death certificate listed syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.
In the 1960s, Johnson’s music was recorded by Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton. When Carl Sagan and his team selected music for the Voyager probe in 1977, Willie’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was among the 27 songs chosen to represent the human experience.
The protagonist of my novel, Sins in Blue, is named Willie Johnson, too. I chose the name because of an off-color joke I wanted to tell. Discovering the story of the real Willie, a gospel blues giant, did not dissuade me from using the name. The Blues is replete with name repetition. (One famous example—two men performed with the name Sonny Boy Williamson. Both were great harmonica players.) I liked the idea of multiple Willie’s—mine being a secondary figure, tucked into the back pages of Blues history.
As for the real Willie, I hope you’ll follow the link and take a listen to the man.
Note: This is one of a series of articles about that great American art form, the Blues. The illustrations were done by Wade Dillon, a professional illustrator who lives in Texas. You can find Wade at https://www.wadedillonart.com/.