Heaven and Hell
The gospel blues - the term sounds like a contradiction.
Many of the early blues musicians played blues on Saturday night and gospel music at church picnics on Sunday afternoon. Any mention of gospel blues brings to mind the two superstars of the genre. Tom Dorsey started his musical career as a gospel singer but was lured away to "the devil's music" when he married Ma Rainey's wardrobe mistress. Years later he repented his ways and returned to the gospel. To this day he is considered the "Father of Gospel".
In contrast to Tom Dorsey's soft commercial side of gospel, Blind Willie Johnson was the raw painful truth. Johnson's music was harsh and gripping, his voice a low growl of false bass. Born in Texas around 1902, Johnson decided he wanted to be a preacher at the age of five. He built his first guitar from a cigar box and taught himself to play. After the death of his mother, Johnson's father remarried. It is believed his step-mother purposely caused his blindness when she threw lye into 7 year old Willie's face in retaliation, after his father caught her in bed with another man and beat her. Willie's father bought him a real guitar and would take him into town on Saturdays. Young Willie Johnson would be left on a street corner to play his guitar with a tin cup on a string around his neck.
During his teenage years his popularity grew. He was playing at picnics and other church functions. His love was for gospel music, but he saw the power of the blues to get people to listen. He combined the blues with his sermons to create a powerful music. He made his first recordings for Columbia on December 3rd, 1927 in Dallas. His recordings where very popular, but as the Depression took hold sales started to drop off. He recorded his last session in 1930 and turned to preaching until his death in 1947.
Johnson is one of the most influential guitarists in music history. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ry Cooder, Duane Allman and many more have expressed a debt to Willie Johnson. Johnson's haunting masterpiece "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)" was chosen for an album placed aboard Voyager 1 in 1977 on its journey to the ends of the universe. Ry Cooder, who based his desolate soundtrack to "Paris, Texas" on "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)," described it as "The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music."