Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Blind Willie Johnson - The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (1927-1930/1993)

There are a lot of important blues guitarists out there from the first half of the 20th century, but oftentimes, the only reason to listen to them is for the necessity of historical context and understanding where certain techniques and influences come from. It's not their fault, but they tend to be not very enjoyable to our modern ears, both due to the melodies and once innovative playing styles being beaten into the ground since then, in addition to the fact that they were never intended to be listened to all in one sitting as the compilations provide them. However, I insist that Blind Willie Johnson is a huge exception to this rule, as his material manages to be interesting enough to still hold up even today, almost 90 years later.

It's impossible to overstate Blind Willie Johnson's importance, as basically every slide guitarist has aped his every move. It's surprising, then, that he still does it better than any of them. His proto-Tom Waits bluesman's growl combines with his slithering slide riffs to form some unforgettable gospel-blues experiences. His original version of “Nobody's Fault But Mine” still blows all other versions out of the water, and the entire first half of this collection is one classic after another.

To try and name check every song or continuously praise them with some variation of “awesome guitar playing, moving vocals, etc.” would be ridiculous. I will say that “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)” shows that he can create haunting, evocative pictures with just his guitar and some humming/moaning, no true vocals required. I'll also say that his material is less effective when he drops his false growl and takes the bottleneck off his finger, but it's a testament to the man's talent and, quite frankly, sheer power that even then the tracks are still quite captivating and enjoyable. The only track I don't really like is “Can't Nobody Hide From God,” which is literally just three minutes of repeating the title in a round with his wife and gets old very fast.

Other than that one misstep, even all bunched together as 30 tracks over the course of 90 minutes, I can honestly say this collection never wears me down. Each song is independently enjoyable and different enough from the ones that surround it for it to never be wearying. And Blind Willie Johnson's charisma is a hook all its own. As I said before, the key word here is “power,” and while I may not sympathize with his religious views, well, I don't sympathize with Bob Marley's or George Harrison's either, and it's never hindered my enjoyment of their material. This is one blues legend who can be not only appreciated, but thoroughly enjoyed. By all means, if you haven't heard this compilation yet, and you have the faintest interest in blues or gospel, pick this up. You won't regret it.

Rating: N/A


  1. I see you're going with the "not rating pre-rock" route. It is quite a difficult task, especially since the compilations aren't meant to be albums per se, but I don't think it's any more fair to the artist than George's "this is not music" theory for Lumpy Gravy, that Neil Young soundtrack (I can't remember the name), Lennon/Ono projects in the late-'60s or the Residents' Eskimo (whether they're really "music" or not).

    1. On the contrary, I think it's unfair to try to assign a simple numerical rating to an artist's entire career, as I would to an album. How can I quantify the quality of the entire recorded output of Blind Willie Johnson, or an arbitrary selection of, say, Buddy Holly's best songs, the choosing of which he had no say in? I have no idea what rating I would give this collection, or most others, and I'm not going to drive myself batty trying to determine what specific value I should place on such things.

    2. The way I saw it is that by not rating an artist/album, they're not worth giving that kind of thought (subconsciously, of course). Obviously, it's nowhere near as significant as reviewing them, but even something as bad as Bon Iver's albums are considered numerically organizable.

  2. And on an unrelated note, I figured out the reason why you couldn't get a feed from my blog: I had that disabled. I hope it works now.