On Sept. 18, 1945, Reverend Blind Willie Johnson died alone.
Earlier that year his House of Prayer had been destroyed by fire and Johnson, gradually being eaten away by syphilis, dwelled in its charred remains until his death. The reasons behind his dire circumstances remain elusive, but it’s known that local hospitals refused him either because he was blind, black, or both.
Johnson was a popular Texas blues musician in the late 1920s and ‘30s. His songs sold thousands of copies through Columbia records, and for each side of a record he forfeited royalties for, they compensated him $50. For these reasons Johnson never amassed considerable wealth, and subsisted on performance money. Being a devout Evangelist his whole life, the Reverend Johnson purchased a modest property in Beaumont, Texas, which he ran as a House of Prayer until its destruction.
“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is one of Johnson’s first recordings. It originates from a hymn of the same name, which articulates Jesus’ pain during his crucifixion. The song has no lyrics, only Johnson’s hums and moans accompanied by a primitive slide guitar.
He substituted the traditional bottleneck with a knife, which creates a distinct, piercing twang when slid against his guitar strings. Like the unison moaning hymns of southern African-American churches, Johnson hums the same melody as his slide-guitar. The pain in Johnson’s voice is palpable. His gravelly moans and vibrated hums convey a sorrow so gut-wrenching, it’s all too clear he carried an unimaginable burden in his heart.
Johnson knew pain. He became blind at the hands of his own mother as a young boy — during an argument between her and his father, she threw lye water in his eyes, blinding him for life.
“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is an ode to burden. Not just Johnson’s, but the collective pain humans have endured since the beginning. The lack of lyrics only elevates the song in this light —Johnson’s pain doesn’t need to be understood, it’s felt. It’s felt deep down in your gut, as if the suffering of every man, woman, and child who’ve walked the Earth are being poured into the confines of your soul.
It’s a universal lesson of the grief embedded in our collective condition. His voice is a reminder of our sorrow, and it will make you empathize with the pain of everyone who ever lived, or will live.