The Upshot: A project begun as a Kickstarter fund blossoms into one of the best tribute albums of the last decade.
BY CHIP KLOSS
When Willie Johnson was 7 years old, his stepmother, angered at being beaten by his father, took her revenge by splashing the boy’s face with a pan of lye. But losing his eyesight did not slow Willie Johnson down. He became a fire-and-brimstone preacher, spending his life singing the blues and spreading the good word on the streets of several towns in Texas. Between the years 1927-1930, Johnson recorded a total of 29 songs for Columbia Records. He accompanied himself on a cigar-box guitar he built himself. His songs were the very root of the blues, and the lyrics were mostly spiritual in nature.
The impact and influence these 29 would have on the music could not be measured until years later. You have heard the influence in the music of Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt. From gospel acts like the Staple Singers to alt-country artist Jason Isbell, you can feel Willie Johnson bubbling just below the surface. In 1977, one of his songs was included in a collection that was placed on a rocket jettisoned to outer space. NASA included the song to give whoever finds the ship a sense of the diversity found on Earth. But even though he has influenced generations of musicians, as days pass his name is slowly being lost in the annals of time.
Then comes along comes this compilation CD. This project of love was masterminded by Jeffrey Gaskill, who was responsible for Gotta Serve Somebody:The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan (Sony Records, 2003) which was nominated for 2 Grammys. This CD began its life as a Kickstarter fund, which raised $125,154 for the cause. Gaskill skillfully picked a lineup of 9 artists who collectively put forth a raw, endearing effort. There is nothing but pure honesty and commitment on every track. Like most compilations, the flow is a little uneven, but every track is an homage to a man whose words ring as true today as they did in 1927.
The CD begins with Tom Waits’ rollicking rendition of “Soul of a Man”. This is Tom Waits at his very best. His growling vocals, feverish hand-clapping and joyful piano makes you feel this track was recorded on a hot August night at a little church on the outskirts of Beaumont, Texas. Lucinda Williams and The Tedeschi-Trucks Band follow suit.
To me, it seems every comp CD has one or two artists whose inclusion puzzles you. For this CD, it’s Sinead O’Connor and Rickie Lee Jones. They are not musicians who I would identify as being influenced by Johnson, especially O’Connor. But her track, “Trouble Will Soon Be Over,” stands out as one of the brightest tracks here. The lyrical context is that life will lead to death, then to your ultimate redemption. The guitar track sounds like nothing I would associate to a blues track, but it is just a tribute to the strength of Johnson’s words. The CD moves through a couple more solid tracks and ends up with Rickie Lee Jones. She tackles “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”. It opens with a hollow vocal and a lonely, stark guitar. Jones feels the pain of the lyric and artfully relays that to the listener. The track fills out a little with a French horn, some added vocals, but stays sad and haunting. Its simplicity is its beauty. As Waits starts us off tapping out feet, Jones leads us out bowing our heads in prayer.
Blind Willie Johnson remained poor his entire life, singing and preaching in Texas. His house caught fire in 1945. With nowhere left to go, he continued to live in its remains until contracting malaria and dying penniless in 1945. Thanks to this well-constructed compilation CD (including a very informative booklet), his legacy will be exposed to a new generation of musicians, and music fans.
DOWNLOAD—“The Soul of a Man”-Tom Waits; “Trouble Will Be Over Soon”-Sinead O’Connor; “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”—Rickie Lee Jones