The first musician of the 1920's I ever took an interest in was Blind Willie Johnson, and my interest grew directly from my interest in astronomy.
When I had just turned 16, PBS first aired Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series. Music was central to the show's mission, so I bought its soundtrack album and listened to it constantly. It included an excerpt of Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (On Which Our Lord Was Laid)." Sagan had earlier edited an LP that was bolted to the side of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. The LP was a kind of timecapsule, designed to introduce the species that built the spacecraft to any civilization that might find it millions of years from now. It was Earth's greatest hits, and it included the full version of Johnson's "Dark Was the Night."
When I went off to college, I visited the University music library and listened to The Complete Blind Willie Johnson closely and repeatedly, and I was very moved by it. Johnson's voice was shreaded and harsh, sort of like Tom Waits or Louis Armstrong, but was capable of a huge range of tone and emotion. His guitar-playing — typically slide guitar — was extraordinarily expressive and could act as a rhythm section at the same time it played melody.
I read then, in college, that Willie Johnson was blind because his stepmother (his mother had died when he was very young) blinded him with a pan of lye. She did it to punish Willie's father for having beaten her, which he did after finding her in bed with another man. Like many blind black men then, Willie learned to play guitar on streetcorners to sustain himself. His father had always wanted his son to be a preacher, and Willie played religious songs exclusively. He was not a bluesman, but a gospel guitarist and singer — indeed, he's often thought of as the greatest ever recorded. Probably his best-known song is "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time."
For reasons I don't understand, this was the last collection of 78's I would hear for another 12 years. When I finally started buying such CD's in early 1996, The Complete Blind Willie Johnson was the first one I got.
The liner notes to that collection are written by the well-known jazz and blues historian Samuel Charters, who had owned a copy of "Dark Was the Night" as a teenager in the late 1940's. They are a riveting read:
For anyone who has grown up after the '60s, already knowing about singers like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt ... Memphis Minnie, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, there's no way to understand what so much of the American musical heritage meant to us when it was almost completely a mystery. The few records we knew about, the handful of names that we knew, were like a faint, distant light through a mist, and we had no idea what the light meant.
In 1953, Charters set off for Texas to try and find out about Blind Willie Johnson (this was very early in the history of such expeditions). When he finally found Johnson's home, Charters was informed that he had died only a few years before. Charters writes, "If I had known the way to the run-down house in Beaumont when I first heard Dark Was the Night, I could have asked him to play it for me."
I usually think of Willie Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt at the same time, precisely because their biographies are so profoundly different from one another — especially the end of their biographies. For Johnson, there was no Folk Revival. Its absence in Willie's life vividly shows us what the Folk Revival really accomplished when it rediscovered 1920's musicians like Dock Boggs and John Hurt. Willie Johnson's widow Angeline describes the death of her husband in Beaumont, TX so soon before the young Samuel Charters knocked on her door, looking for his hero:
He died from pneumonia ... We burnt out there in the north end, 1440 Forrest, and when we burnt out we didn't know many people, and so I just, you know, drug him back in there and we laid on them wet bed clothes with a lot of newspaper. It didn't bother me, but it bothered him. See, he'd turn over and I'd just lay up on the paper, and I thought if you put a lot of paper on, you know, it would keep us from getting sick. We didn't get wet, but just the dampness, you know and then he's singing and his veins open and everything, and it just made him sick. [The hospital] wouldn't accept him. He'd have been living today if they'd accepted him. 'Cause he's blind. Blind folks has a hard time.
Dock Boggs: Revival
Mississippi John Hurt: Revival