Dark was the
night and cold was the ground on which Blind Willie Johnson was laid.
Yet after his death, his music would streak to the stars on the Voyager
and become part of the “music of the spheres.”
The Voyager Golden Record was sent into space in 1977, carrying
greetings in 60 languages, sounds of nature and the music of
Beethoven, Bach and Blind Willie Johnson. Carl Sagan likened it to
throwing a bottle into the cosmic ocean.
beautiful portrait of Blind Willie Johnson by renowned artist R.
Crumb was published in "R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country,"
along with dozens of other iconic portraits. Crumb’s portraits of
blues musicians also appear on “Heroes of the Blues” T-shirts.
around all day for a job, and I looked almost every place.
hard to come home and find hunger on your children’s face.”
heartrending words are not merely song lyrics. They are the
real-life testimony of a bluesman — the single father of three young
children — who is singing his sorrow about what it feels like to
come home from a fruitless search for work and see hunger and
deprivation on the faces of the children he loves above all else.
verses composed by Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner, a gifted poet and blues
musician who grew up as a sharecropper in Texas and lived in poverty
in Houston for most of his adult life, provide an important clue
into the mystery of why so many blues artists sing with such passion
about poverty, injustice and homelessness.
the finest blues musicians in history grew up in poverty — and some
of them died still poor. Especially in the first few decades of the
blues, many great artists made very little money despite their
prodigious talent, and were forced to take menial jobs to make ends
meet. Yet, that sometimes gave them the insight to create highly
meaningful songs about lives broken down by economic hardships,
hunger, evictions, and despair.
get a glimpse into this hidden dimension of the blues by taking a
closer look at the lives and music of two brilliant Texas musicians:
Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner and Blind Willie Johnson.
The Ghetto Poet
almost forgotten today even in blues circles, Juke Boy Bonner was a
remarkable poet and a gifted blues guitarist and singer. He
sometimes performed as a one-man band, singing his poetic songs
while accompanying himself on guitar, harmonica and percussion.
Bonner’s lyrics are poetry in the true sense. Even when he is near
despair, his songs are beautiful and uplifting in the way they speak
to the human condition. His song, “It Don’t Take Too Much,” offers a
melancholy account of a beautiful loser, a man with a heart full of
soul, crushed by the weight of the world.
don’t take too much to make you think you were born to lose.
to keep on pushing at that mountain, and it never seems to move.”
sides of Bonner’s identity as an artist are expressed by the titles
of two of his finest records, produced by Chris Strachwitz on
Arhoolie. His dark-blue, despairing side is captured by “Life Gave
Me a Dirty Deal,” and his identity as a poet from the poor side of
town is expressed as “Juke Boy Bonner — Ghetto Poet.”
Don’t Take Too Much,” Bonner reveals how the blues can strike on an
economic level — when you can’t find a job — and simultaneously
strike at an emotional level — when your wife leaves you. The
inequities of a world that’s “doing you wrong” cause the downcast
blues by breaking up your home.
don’t take too much to make you feel the world is doing you wrong,
Especially when you can’t find no job,
can’t take care of your wife and your home.”
poet laureate of the blues, as Brett Bonner (no relation) of
Living Blues magazine once described Juke Boy, was also one of
the strongest political voices in the blues, speaking out against
the economic inequality of U.S. society.
describing his own tough existence in Houston’s poor neighborhoods,
this lone bluesman also became the voice for countless poor people
who have found that the “upper-class people” don’t give a single,
solitary damn about the survival of the poor.
don’t take too much after you gave all that you can give.
like upper-class people don’t care how the lower class of people
Living Blues magazine, Brett Bonner described Juke Boy Bonner as
one of the most important poets in the blues.
wrote, “If you had to choose a poet laureate of the late ‘60s/early
‘70s blues scene, you would be hard pressed to find someone more
qualified than Juke Boy Bonner. Bonner’s songs speak beautifully and
forcefully of the struggle of African Americans. While many blues
songwriters focus attention on themselves and their place in the
world, Bonner’s songs display a social consciousness that stretched
far beyond himself.”
Bonner’s marriage at a young age resulted in three children, his
wife unexpectedly left him, leaving him solely responsible for his
children’s upbringing, a burden made heavier by his own poor health
and economic struggles.
liner notes to Bonner’s album, “Life Gave Me a Dirty Deal,” Chris
Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, explained how the burden
was also a blessing. “Perhaps the most unhappy period in Weldon
Bonner’s life was his marriage. His wife left him after giving him
what he considers the greatest gift in his life, his three
children…. Weldon lavished attention, education, responsibilities,
and affection on his family. They are all wonderful, lively,
intelligent young people.”
years as a single parent were also full of hardships. Even though
Bonner was a genuine poet and a gifted musician, he often was unable
to support his family with his music at low-paying blues venues.
Will I Tell the Children,” he sings the hard-working, low-paying,
single-parent blues, returning home feeling empty inside after
failing to find a job.
know it’s so hard when you’re trying to make it,
living from day to day.
down and apply for a job and the people turn you away.
shall I tell my children, oh Lord, when I get home? Tell them,
tomorrow, maybe tomorrow all our troubles will be gone.’”
the words “maybe tomorrow” so forlornly, as if he’s grasping at a
slender thread of hope. What if tomorrow doesn’t deliver on those
another song on “Ghetto Poet,” Bonner sings, “All the lonely days
just seem to fade away.” Then the days turn into endless years of
broken dreams: “All the lonely years just seem to disappear.”
will see, Bonner was not only enduring economic deprivation,
loneliness, the pressures of single fatherhood, and disillusionment
that his brilliant music never seemed to find a large audience, but
was also enduring scary health issues.
a sensitive poet undergoes that level of suffering, even his
despairing words can still be striking and memorable, as in his
song, “It’s Enough.”
like I’m waiting for a tomorrow that will never come,
days and days have passed, yet I never see the sun.
enough to make you wish you were never born.
Sometimes I wonder where I get the power and the strength to carry
“I’m a Bluesman”
“My father passed on when I was two years old,
Didn’t leave me a thing but a whole lot of soul.
You can see I’m a bluesman.”
Those lonely and forsaken lines are from Bonner’s
self-revealing song, “I’m a Bluesman.” Being a bluesman was
at the very heart of his identity, and this song reveals the
major events of his life as reflected in the mirror of the
Weldon Bonner was born on a farm near Bellville, Texas,
where his father, Manuel Bonner, was a sharecropper. His
very first years seemed to foreshadow all the bad luck that
stalked him all his life. He was born in 1932 just as the
rural economy was collapsing during the Depression.
Juke Boy Bonner's
song, "I'm a Bluesman," can be found on this CD, "The Sonet
Blues Story: Juke Boy Boonner."
the youngest of nine children born into a poor family, and just as
he sang in “I’m a Bluesman,” his father died when he was only two.
Then, Bonner’s mother died when he was only eight.
mother passed on when I was just about eight,
started learning I was growing up in a world of hate.
made me a bluesman.”
1975 book, The Legacy of the Blues, the pioneering blues
author and record producer Samuel Charters described the one-on-one
correlation between Juke Boy Bonner’s life and his autobiographical
song, “I’m a Bluesman.”
losing both parents, Bonner went to live with an older sister in
Bellville. Instead of going to school, he was working in the Texas
cotton fields when he was only 13, just as he sang so movingly.
“I go to
work in the fields when I was just thirteen.
get a chance to know what education means.”
at the age of 30, Bonner was hospitalized for chronic ulcers and 45
percent of his stomach was removed. During his long recovery, he
began writing poetry and had countless poems published in Forward
Times, the African-American newspaper of Houston.
turned many of these poems into beautiful songs and became a fine
singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. His music was championed,
first by Mike Leadbitter, a leading blues researcher and writer for
Blues Unlimited in England, and later by Chris Strachwitz,
the founder of Arhoolie Records in El Cerrito, who released his
all the brilliance of his artistry, Juke Boy Bonner would never
become a star.
end of “I’m a Bluesman,” Bonner sings the desolate and downhearted
words that, in my mind, make him one of the most important and
prophetic voices of the homeless condition in America. All the hard
knocks he endured gave him the knowledge and sensitivity to capture
the frightening insecurity of life on the streets.
night you don’t know where you’re going to sleep,
you’ll get your next meal to eat
makes you a bluesman, a bluesman.
the world to know how come I’m a bluesman.”
in the Big City,” Bonner writes of his disillusionment in moving
from the hard, bare existence of a sharecropper’s life on a Texas
cotton farm to Houston, only to find that poverty had followed him
to the big city. “Here I am in the big city and I’m just about to
starve to death.”
Bluesman” appeared on “The Sonet Blues Story: Juke Boy Bonner,” and
his other songs appeared on “Life Gave Me a Dirty Deal” and “Ghetto
Poet.” Strachwitz produced all these intensely moving records by a
talented musician and poet, and Charter was the creative force
behind the Sonet Blues series.
his work being championed by Chris Strachwitz, Samuel Charter and
Mike Leadbitter, Juke Boy Bonner might have lived and died almost
Hero of the Blues
Bonner never became a big star, he was a voice of his people, a
wonderful poet and a courageous bluesman who kept playing even after
half of his stomach was removed.
concerts and performed at blues festivals all over the country and
traveled to Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. But
somehow, he never had a breakthrough moment in his career.
life-stories of great artists in America are supposed to follow a
rags-to-riches story arc. When a sensitive young man is born into an
impoverished family of sharecroppers on a Texas farm just as the
Depression ruins the economy, and then loses both parents, we are
primed to expect that his years of hard work and brilliant artistry
will be rewarded someday.
the first chapters of Bonner’s life were harsh and cruel, the last
chapter was outright heartbreaking.
though he had written and published hundreds of poems, and had
recorded blues albums of unquestionable worth and beauty, in
Bonner’s last years he held down “a dreadful minimum wage job” in
Houston, as Strachwitz explained in the notes to “Life Gave Me a
last time I visited Juke Boy in Houston,” Strachwitz wrote, “he was
working at a chicken processing plant, depressing work for anyone
but especially demoralizing for a sensitive poet like Weldon
Bonner.” Strachwitz later wrote that he would never forget the bad
shape Juke Boy was in while working that job.
when he was only 46 years old, Bonner died on June 28, 1978, in “the
small rented room where he lived” in Houston. The last verses of
Bonner’s overpowering song, “It Don’t Take Too Much” express the
essential truth of this poet’s lifelong struggle with the blues.
don’t take too much to make you think you was born to lose
That’s why I lay down worrying and I wake up with the blues.”
his lack of public recognition, Juke Boy Bonner lived and died a
great poet — and a hero of the blues. As I write these words, I
realize I am wearing a T-shirt with an iconic portrait of Blind
Willie Johnson by the artist R. Crumb and the blazing inscription:
“Heroes of the Blues.”
forlorn moment, I find myself wishing that Juke Boy Bonner had also
been consecrated as a hero of the blues, and that during his
lifetime he had enjoyed some of the success lavished on so many
past experience, I know where these wishes will soon lead. I’ll
begin wishing for a world where the genuine blues artists like Juke
Boy Bonner and Blind Willie Johnson are far more celebrated than the
Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and all the others who have grown
rich while exploiting the blues. As long as I’m wishing for the
impossible, why not wish for eyesight for the blind? In fact, why
not wish for eyesight for Blind Willie Johnson?
though justice is too often delayed, it may still show up on some
unexpected day. After all, one of the greatest musicians in our
nation’s history, Blind Willie Johnson, spent the last 17 years of
his life in nearly total obscurity, playing his breathtaking music
for strangers on small-town street corners, and then died a lonely
death. Yet now, his music sails among the stars.
Blind Willie Johnson and the Music of the Spheres
opening frames of “The Soul of a Man,” a film by director Wim
Wenders in the film series “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues,”
NASA technicians are seen loading a golden record on board the
Voyager as it is about to blast off to explore the outer reaches of
our solar system and then continue on into deep space.
Voyager Golden Record carried the “Sounds of Earth” — the diverse
languages, music and natural sounds of surf, thunder, birds and
whales. Carl Sagan likened it to launching a message in a bottle
into the “cosmic ocean.” The Voyager Golden Record selected the
music of Bach, Beethoven and Blind Willie Johnson to carry on this
voyage into the solar system, past Pluto and to the stars beyond.
amazing to contemplate this starry destiny for Blind Willie’s music,
since during his life he seemed the most earthbound of men. He was
born into poverty in Texas, blinded as a very young child, and later
died in obscurity.
lost his mother at an early age. He would later sing a deeply moving
rendition of “Motherless children have a hard time when the mother
is gone.” During his youth, Willie Johnson walked down many lonely
roads in darkness. He would die in much the same way, after sleeping
on a soaked mattress when his house burned down.
Johnson is now immortalized as one of the most brilliant slide
guitarists in the history of gospel and blues music, and his
haunting rendition of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is
now soaring into space. His music truly has become part of the
“music of the spheres.”
musicians win gold records for reaching one million dollars in sales
(or by later standards, 500,000 units). Blind Willie Johnson’s music
is on the ultimate gold record, shining among the stars.
was a stunning original. Samuel Charters wrote that no one during
his time sounded like Blind Willie Johnson as a singer or guitarist.
But Johnson would soon influence everyone else. Musicians to this
day are still devoting years of their lives in an attempt to figure
out his incredibly beautiful and complex slide guitar playing.
liner notes to “The Complete Blind Willie Johnson” on Columbia,
Charters wrote: “He was one of the most brilliant slide guitarists
who ever recorded, and he used the upper strings for haunting
melodic phrases that finished the lines he was singing in the text.”
Sandblasted Vocal Cords
Willie Johnson didn’t sing the blues, however. Every song he
recorded between the years of 1927 to 1930 was a gospel song, yet
his slide guitar playing sounded like the very essence of the blues,
and he sang loud enough to wake the dead in a rasping growl that
sounded like his vocal cords had been sandblasted.
beautifully expressive, yet deep and raw vocals remade gospel music
so it sounded like the primal blues of the Mississippi Delta, as if
the harsh, gravel-voiced singing of Son House had mingled with the
intense, passionate vocals of Howlin’ Wolf. Yet Blind Willie Johnson
grew up in rural Texas, not Mississippi, and his music preceded most
of the blues artists. Where did it come from?
the finest guitarists in the world are in awe of Blind Willie
Johnson. Some have spent half their lives trying to replicate what
he could do on a slide guitar. How did a blind young man who played
in small towns in an isolated area of rural Texas become one of the
most masterful guitarists of all?
Cooder, a virtuoso slide guitarist himself, described what Blind
Willie Johnson’s playing meant to him. “Of course, I’ve tried all my
life — worked very hard and every day of my life, practically — to
play in that style. He’s so good. I mean, he’s just so good! Beyond
a guitar player. I think the guy is one of these interplanetary
exactly right about the “interplanetary” part. Blind Willie
Johnson’s performance of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,”
an instrumental version of a gospel song about the crucifixion of
Jesus, was sent into space on the Voyager as “the human expression
of loneliness.” The song’s full title is, “Dark was the night and
cold was the ground, on which the Lord was laid.”
Charters wrote that Blind Willie Johnson had created a “shattering
mood” with this song. “What Willie did in the studio was to create
this mood, this haunted response to Christ’s crucifixion,” Charters
wrote, adding that Johnson created an “achingly” expressive melody
with just his slide guitar. Instead of singing the words of the
hymn, Johnson cast aside the lyrics and went for pure emotion,
humming along wordlessly in a meditative mood.
a moment that was as moving as it was unforgettable,” Charters
wrote. “It was the only piece he played like this, and nothing else
similar to it was ever recorded. It remains one of the unique
masterpieces of American music.”
Cooder said that Johnson’s performance was “the most transcendent
piece in all American music.”
Willie Johnson’s entire life prepared him to have the emotional
depth and sensitivity to create such a deeply felt response to the
crucifixion of a Biblical figure who was born homeless.
Motherless Children Have a Hard Time
Johnson’s mother died when he was an infant. One of his most moving
songs was sung with all the depth and heartache that a motherless
son could find deep within himself. It is now a classic of American
singing sends chills through my soul. It is a darkly unsettling
experience, yet his otherworldly voice offers pure compassion to the
motherless and fatherless children of the world. I lost my own
father too early. And I love this song.
who have lost their parents at a very young age may be lost on some
deep level for a very long time. And they may become lost in another
sense as well — they may become homeless or spend their childhood
days in poverty.
time I hear Blind Willie Johnson sing the last verse of this song,
images arise of all the motherless and fatherless children who are
homeless in modern America, and all the throwaway kids who are
released from the foster care system with nowhere to go.
haunting image that arises is a picture of Willie Johnson himself,
sightless and motherless, trying to make his way in the world by
singing these words on street corners to unseen strangers.
“Motherless children have a hard time when mother is dead, Lord.
Motherless children have a hard time — mother’s dead.
don’t have anywhere to go, wandering around from door to door.
father sent this sightless, motherless youth out with a tin cup to
sing on street corners in small towns in Texas. Johnson recorded for
only three years, from 1927 to 1930, yet during that time he is said
to have outsold Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues.
The Homeless Stranger
hymns and gospel songs, yet as Charter wrote, these songs “have been
so completely changed in his hands that they become his own personal
expression, building on the great Biblical figures.” Above all,
Charters added, his songs reflected “the loneliness of the
motherless child or the homeless stranger.”
my favorite songs of all expresses the lonely life of the homeless
stranger. Willie Johnson walked in darkness all his life and he must
have known many lonesome days when all he met were strangers who
looked upon him as a blind beggar, a homeless stranger. They had no
way of knowing that they were meeting one of the most remarkable
musicians in American history.
whether we have encountered a homeless stranger, or a world-class
musician, Johnson’s song, “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger
Right,” is the voice of the conscience.
all of us down here are strangers, none of us have no home,
never hurt, oh, your brother and cause him to live alone.
Everybody ought to treat a stranger right long ways from home.”
goes beyond a simple appeal for compassion. With his spiritual
vision, he reminds us that another Stranger once was born homeless,
because there was no room at the inn.
Christ came down a stranger. He didn’t have no home,
was cradled in a manger and oxen kept him warm.”
song is a reminder to a nation which just officially reported a
record number of more than one million homeless children enrolled in
the public schools that the lives of all of those homeless strangers
are sacred. Every single one.
Dark Was the Night
though Blind Willie Johnson’s records had been selling well, and
would soon become deeply influential to other musicians, the
Depression ended the recording careers of many great blues artists,
including Blind Willie. In 1930, Johnson recorded his last song.
Yet, he kept playing music on the streets and in church gatherings
in Beaumont, Texas, all through the 1930s and up until his death on
September 18, 1945.
his death, his music would streak on its heroic journey towards the
stars in deep space. But during his life, this masterful musician
suffered the crucifixion of poverty. It must be said: Dark was the
night and cold was the ground on which Blind Willie Johnson was
August 1945, the shack where he lived with his wife Angeline burned
down. With nowhere else to go, they lived in the fire-gutted ruins
of their home and slept on wet newspapers on top of their soaked
mattress. Johnson soon died of pneumonia or, alternately, malarial
are so many haunting deaths among homeless people on the streets,
premature deaths caused by untreated illnesses among extremely poor
people with inadequate medical care. And there are so many haunting
deaths in the blues.
immediately thinks of the terrible death of Robert Johnson, slowly
and torturously dying in 1938 after being poisoned, and Charley
Patton dying on a Mississippi plantation shortly after singing “Oh
Death” at his last recording session for Vocalion in 1934.
Lemon Jefferson died alone in a snowstorm on a wintry night in
Chicago in December 1929, and Bessie Smith died in Clarksdale,
Mississippi, in 1937 following a deadly car accident while traveling
on Highway 61 from Memphis into Clarksdale. Elmore James died from a
massive heart attack in 1963 when he was only 45 and should have had
many more years to play his brilliant slide guitar.
Boy (John Lee) Williamson I, a fine singer and groundbreaking blues
harpist, was murdered at the age of 34 during a robbery in Chicago
in 1948. His last words reportedly were, “Lord, have mercy.” Another
great vocalist and, in many people’s view, the most brilliant
musician ever to play the blues harmonica, Little Walter, died at
the age of 37 in 1968 as a result of injuries suffered during a
fight in Chicago.
Boy Williamson II died in 1965, a short time after playing in a juke
joint with Robbie Robertson and the Hawks (later of The Band).
During the set, Williamson was constantly spitting what Robertson
thought was tobacco juice into a can, until he finally realized that
Sonny Boy actually had been spitting his blood into the can all
night, then returning to play harmonica.
light of all these tragic deaths, there is something in the
brilliant artistry and the forsaken death of Blind Willie Johnson
that is deeply touching. He lived and died a genuine,
gospel-drenched hero of the blues — not just when he was recording
his immortal music, but in my mind, maybe even more during the 15
years from 1930 to 1945 when the sightless street musician continued
to play to small numbers of strangers on obscure street corners.
How We Treat the Stranger
remembering his death, an unwelcome thought arises: This is how we
treat the homeless stranger. We have created a society where an
unknown blind man is turned away from a hospital and dies in a
fire-gutted home, not just in Johnson’s era in rural Texas, but here
and now, and in every state of the union.
today, we scarcely notice when a slum hotel in the inner city burns
to the ground, or when homeless people die years before their time
due to untreated illnesses and exposure, or that the safety net has
been shredded so blind and disabled people are less able to survive.
sang, “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” to warn us that
the messiah may appear in the anonymous guise of a nameless,
faceless stranger, and that the life of each unsheltered, needy
stranger has sacred worth.
demonstrated the full significance of those lyrics by dying the
unnoticed death of the unknown stranger, even though, in this case,
he was one of the finest musicians of all time.
Eliot’s poem, “The Rock,” echoes with the same message about the
Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
huddle close together because you love each other?”
will you answer? “We all dwell together
money from each other?” or “This is a community?”
On his recording of “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,”
Blind Willie Johnson asked us that same question, a question that
will never go away.