Posted by: Kristen Hicks | December 14, 2011

Blind Willie Johnson

 

You know how sometimes soon after you first hear about something it suddenly seems like it starts turning up all around you?  I read an article in Texas Monthly about Blind Willie Johnson a couple of months ago and was moved enough by it to consider writing about it, but then just never got around to it.

Then, his story and music were all over the episode of the West Wing I watched this week.

His is one of those astounding stories of a man whose talent was largely unknown and under appreciated during his lifetime, but came to be something meaningful and influential to many after his death. It brings to mind the question of just how many brilliant artists end up flying completely under the radar, not just during their lifetimes, but forever.

We have a record of Blind Willie Johnson because he happened to live in a time in which the technology to record music existed. It’s not completely accurate to suggest he was unknown in his lifetime, there was a brief period in which his music sold well and was reviewed in relatively well known publications, but he never found the kind of fame that would have given people cause to seek out his life story when it was still possible to learn much about it.  The Texas Monthly article chronicles the attempts of several ardent fans to track down the story of his life, but by the time their interest was piqued, the trail had largely turned cold.

His primary claim to fame, the reason his name and song came to play an important role in the episode of the West Wing, was the inclusion of his song “Dark was the Night–Cold was the Ground” on the Voyager spacecraft in the late 70’s. When choosing the items to best represent the human race to anyone or thing that might encounter these ships in space, we sent a record including:

Words (greetings in 55 languages), sounds (a train, a kiss, a barking dog), pictures (mountains, dolphins, sprinters), and ninety minutes of music. There are panpipes from Peru, bagpipes from Bulgaria, and drums from Senegal. And at the very end, summing up the power and the pathos of everything that went before…two singular pieces of music by two singular men who couldn’t have been more different… Ludwig van Beethoven, befitting his reputation as the greatest composer ever [and] a song recorded and played by a twentieth-century street musician, Blind Willie Johnson.

 

This fact became a symbol in the West Wing episode of the transcendence of man and the importance of exploration; and serves as a contrast to the common uses of our power and knowledge for destruction rather than inspiration. The episode follows the storyline of a woman seeking to convince the administration (represented by Josh Lyman-the character in the clip below) of the value of the space program, while other members of the administration deal with a threat of nuclear weapons and discuss their role in our human past and its implications in the relationships between nations in the present.

 

That an impoverished, blind man from small town Texas could rise to the heights of becoming a representative of the human race to the larger solar system, alongside Beethoven, and serve as a symbol of what makes man good in spite of our more destructive impulses, is a great testament to the power of art. With so little known about him, it’s impossible to imagine how Blind Willie Johnson may have responded to the role his music has played in art and discussions its had a role in inspiring since it was made, but it’s heartening to keep in mind that someone largely inconsequential by society’s standards of the day made more of an impact on history that many of the wealthy and powerful that lived in the same period.

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