The Upshot: More than a tribute album! An important blues document, period, featuring Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams and more.
BY TOM CALLAHAN
God don’t never change—the Songs of Blind Willie Johnson is more than a tribute album; this is an important musical document in its own right. Tribute albums, even in the blues, have been common over the years. But to hear artists like Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Blind Boys of Alabama, Rickie Lee Jones tackle the songs of this still to this day obscure Texas country bluesman who only did sacred or religious music is itself a revelation.
Johnson was an itinerant street preacher. Being accessible was never his thing. He recorded just 30 race records for Columbia from 1927-1930. By 1945, he was dead at the age of 48. So while Robert Johnson was laying the groundwork for the rock and roll revolution three decades later, Blind Willie Johnson was trying to save souls. Indeed, we learn in Michael Corcorin’s wonderful booklet with the CD, he actually recorded before both Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, the kings of country blues.
Even dedicated blues fans searching out the roots of the blues, like myself, found it a challenge to embrace this Johnson. His music, just him singing in a gravelly voice and playing slide guitar, is almost otherworldly, spooky. And then your hear “Cold Was The Ground, Dark Was The Night.” And this is the sheer terror of the blues; a slide masterpiece. A song apocalyptic in its power. His playing is so full of passion and so fiery that it is that rarest of things, a song impossible to ignore. According to the booklet, that song was inspired by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Listen to this song and you can feel the passion of Christ. Rikki Lee Jones does it beautifully with vocals on this album.
Or listen to Tom Waits tackle two songs, “The Soul of a Man” and “John the Regulator” and you can almost hear Blind Willy’s growl coming through the speaker. Modern music fans will recognize “Motherless Children” that Eric Clapton had a hit with in 1974. The song’s actual title is “Mother’s Children have a Hard Time” and here it is done in a beautiful gospel version by the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama. Or listen to the hypnotic version of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning, with vocals by Susan Tedeschi and a great slide by Derek Trucks.
The 14 songs on here represent a major artistic statement which not only pays tribute to one of the greatest bluesmen of all time, but speaks to a modern audience. You do not have to be religious to appreciate this album or the power of Blind Willie Johnson. He was one of the greatest artists America ever produced. Again, Alligator proves itself to be the greatest, most vibrant blues label in the world. If you have one blues tribute CD in your collection, it should be this one.
DOWNLOAD: “The Soul of a Man,” “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” “God the Revelator”