Tag Archives: Blind Willie Johnson

the blues in space

This week featured an extraordinary event – American astronauts returning to space for the first time in nine years. Even more stunning is the fact that there were carried there by a privately owned space craft from the SpaceX company instead of a NASA owned and operated one, surely opening the door to an international space travel industry. Tickets to the moon for anyone who can afford them (and they are not cheap; at a mere $35 million) are already being sold. So what’s next? Tickets to Mars? The, ahem, the sky’s the limit? Just ask Elon Musk, the SpaceX owner.

“By successfully launching its new Crew Dragon spacecraft with astronauts on board for the first time, SpaceX became the first private company to launch astronauts for NASA. The crewed test flight, called Demo-2, is also the first crewed launch from the United States since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. SpaceX and Boeing were both selected for NASA’s commercial crew program to wean the agency off its dependence on Russia’s Soyuz to fly  astronauts after the shuttle program was retired,” explains an article in Space.com

A gentle reader might ask OK, but what does all this good news have to do with the blues? That’s where the late American astronomer Carl Sagan and his team of scientists came in back in the late 1970s with the launch of NASA’s Voyager series of space probes. In 1977, upon the launching of Voyager I and Voyager II, a committee working under Carl Sagan produced the so-called “Golden Records,” actual phonographic LPs made of copper containing “a collection of sounds and images,” writes Joss Fong at Vox, “that will probably outlast all human artifacts on Earth.”

Carried into deep space, these recordings were presumably made for the entertainment of any aliens that might come across them. The idea was to send a representative sample of the earth’s cultures in terms of what earthlings enjoy, including music. The Open Culture blog explains: Among the audio selections are greetings from then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whale songs, Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 2 in F, Senegalese percussion, Aborigine songs, Peruvian panpipes and drums, Navajo chant, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” (playing in the Vox video), more Bach, Beethoven, and “Johnny B. Goode.” The Beatles wanted to have “Here Comes the Sun” included, but their recording company forbade it. On what grounds we have to wonder? Was it possible the company was afraid of being sued for copyright infringement by aliens?

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945) was born in the small town of Pendleton, Texas. He was not born blind but got that way when he was a young boy. His mother, in a spat with her husband, threw a pan full of lye in her son’s face. In rural Texas, a blind black boy in those days had only a couple of choices and both concerned picking: cotton or a guitar. Willie recorded thirty spiritual songs between 1927 and 1930; many of which featured a female background singer. For a brief period, Willie’s recordings outsold the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith.

Although Willie never recorded traditional blues songs, it was his slide guitar playing that placed him squarely in the blues category. Anyway, Blind Willie Johnson’s greatest song was selected to inter-galactically represent the blues for several reasons: he had experienced the “crucifixion” of poverty, he had an “other worldly” voice, and his guitar playing was next to heavenly. Sadly, Blind Willie died of malaria and syphilis, complicated by pneumonia, after his shack burned down in August 1945. He and his wife had slept on a soggy mattress in the ashes because they had no other place to go.

Isn’t it interesting that the music of a deaf German musical conductor named Beethoven was also included in the Golden Records in Voyager II that will fly through our solar system for the next 60,000 years? It’s also ironic that the blues greats from the Mississippi Delta were skipped over for a poor Texas bluesman. 

An article in Texas Monthly by Michael Hall entitled “The Soul of a Man” sums up nicely: “The slide guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, who used ‘Dark Was the Night’ as the motif for his melancholy soundtrack to Paris, Texas, once called the song ‘the most transcendent piece in all American music.’ In about 60,000 years, one of the Voyagers just might enter another solar system. Maybe it will be intercepted. Maybe the interceptors will figure out how to play that record. Maybe they’ll hear ‘Dark Was the Night.’ Maybe they’ll wonder, what kind of creature made that music?”

That may indeed be a question for the ages, or as Cooder himself puts it: “I think Blind Willie Johnson is one of these interplanetary world musicians.”

Blind Willie Johnson performs “Dark Was the Night”