By Brad Dison
Willie Johnson was born on January 25, 1897. His poor sharecropper parents struggled to survive off of what they grew in the poor earth in Pendleton, Texas. At some point, Willie and his family moved to a farm with far better soil near Marlin, Texas. When Willie was five years old, his father got Willie a homemade cigar box guitar. Willie quickly learned to play the cheap instrument. According to Willie’s widow, when Willie was seven years old, his father and stepmother got into a physical altercation allegedly over Willie’s stepmother’s infidelities. During the brawl, Willie’s stepmother was holding a caustic solution of lye water. As Willie’s father and stepmother fought, the caustic solution splashed into Willie’s eyes and completely blinded him. From that moment on, he was known as Blind Willie Johnson.
Blind Willie’s lack of sight made working in the fields nearly impossible. Blind Willie sang and played his guitar while his family worked in the fields. In a way, Blind Willie helped more with his voice and guitar than he would have if he had not been blinded. His songs kept up morale in the fields and set the pace for planting and harvesting crops. In his twenties, Blind Willie began playing a Stella brand guitar and singing religious songs on the street corners of Marlin, Texas. He tied a tin cup to the neck of his guitar. Upon hearing the unmistakable clink of a coin or coins dropping into his tin cup, Blind Willie gave an appreciative nod and a smile.
In December 1927, a talent scout set up a makeshift recording studio for Columbia Records in Dallas, Texas. The scout had heard of Blind Willie’s talent and invited him to a recording session. On that cool December day, Blind Willie recorded six songs including “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” Columbia initially released two songs from Blind Willie’s session “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole,” and “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed.” Selling more than 15,000 copies, Blind Willie’s first record sold more than Columbia’s most established star, Bessie Smith. With the success of his first record, Columbia’s talent scout brought Blind Willie in for four more recording sessions between 1927 and 1930. In total, Blind Willie completed 30 songs. Blind Willie’s rise to stardom seemed to be assured until the Great Depression left most of his fans with no spare money for buying records. Blind Willie’s professional music career ended with little fanfare. Sadly, Blind Willie Johnson and his recordings are largely forgotten today. Although sales of his first record far exceeded expectations, he was far from reaching the required $1 million from the sale of at least 500,000 units for the Recording Industry Association of America to award Blind Willie a gold record.
In August and September 1977, NASA launched two robotic interstellar probes named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Both space probes carried numerous instruments for recording a wide array of measurements, taking photographs, recording audio, and transmitting that information back to scientists on Earth. Also included on the space probes were two phonograph records which contained over a hundred imprinted images which displayed different aspects of life on Earth as well as the sounds of frogs, crickets, volcanoes, laughter, a human heartbeat, footsteps, animal sounds, 27 pieces of music, and greetings in 59 languages. Etched onto each record were pictures showing how to play the sound recordings and how to retrieve the photos using equipment which was located near the records on the space probes. NASA included this information to show the diversity of life and culture on Earth in the event that they come into contact with an advanced alien civilization. Voyager 1 is traveling at over 38,000 miles per hour and has reached a distance of 14.8 billion miles from Earth. Voyager 2 is traveling at over 34,000 miles per hour and has reached 12.4 billion miles from Earth. At their current trajectories, it will take another 14,000 to 28,000 years before Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 will exit our Solar System.
Although Blind Willie Johnson never earned a gold record on Earth, he certainly earned a gold record in space. His recording of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is one of the 27 songs included on the gold-plated “The Sounds of Earth” record which is still traveling through space. Perhaps one day in the distant future, in a galaxy far away, one of the first sounds an advanced alien civilization will hear from our small planet will be that of Blind Willie Johnson. “The Sounds of Earth” records can remain playable for more than 1 billion years.
- NASA. 2019. “Voyager – the Golden Record.” Nasa.gov. 2019. voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record/.
- Pinkard, Ryan. 2016. Review of Dark Was the Night: The Legacy of Blind Willie Johnson. Tidal.com. February 26, 2016. tidal.com/magazine/article/dark-was-the-night-the-legacy-of-blind-willie-johnson-share/1-23219.