Gospel Blues: Johnsons & Blind Willies

Gospel blues or holy blues is a form of blues-based gospel music that has been around since the inception of blues music. Gospel blues music is a combination of blues guitar and evangelistic lyrics. Notable gospel blues performers include:

Blues musicians recorded a fair number of Gospel and religious songs, often commercially released under a pseudonym.

Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson (January 25, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was an American gospel blues singer and guitarist and evangelist. He recording 30 songs between 1927 and 1930. Johnson was also a street performer and preacher.

His songs display a combination of powerful “chest voice” singing, slide guitar skills, and originality. Johnson had little wealth in his lifetime, even though his records sold well. His life was poorly documented, but over time music historians such as Samuel Charters have uncovered more about Johnson and his five recording sessions.

Recording Sessions (1927–1930)

By the time Johnson began his recording career, he was a well-known evangelist. Blues historian Paul Oliver notes that Willie had a “remarkable technique and a wide range of songs”.

On December 3, 1927, Johnson recorded music for the first time. In the ensuing session, Johnson played six selections, 13 takes in total. He was accompanied by Willie B. Harris on his first recording, “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole“. He was compensated with $50 per “usable” side—a substantial amount for the period—and a bonus to forfeit royalties from sales of the records

Johnson also recorded “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” that day. NASA consultant Timothy Ferris selected this as one of 27 songs sent on the Voyager probe to other life forms in the universe.  Because, according to Ferris, “Johnson’s song concerns a situation he faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. 

The Library of Congress added “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” to the National Recording Registry in 2010.

Robert Johnson

Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues singer-songwriter and musician. He influenced later generations of musicians with his 1936 in 1937 landmark recordings.

Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the  Mississippi Delta blues style. Many rock musicians consider him an important influence.  Eric Clapton has called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived.”

Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first induction ceremony, in 1986. In 2003, David Fricke ranked Johnson fifth in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.

Blind Willie McTell

Blind Willie McTell (born William Samuel McTier; May 5, 1898 – August 19, 1959) was a Piedmont blues and ragtime singer and guitarist. He played with a fluid, syncopated fingerstyle guitar technique, common among many exponents of Piedmont blues.

McTell’s influenced a wide variety of artists, including the Allman Brothers Band, who covered his “Statesboro Blues“. Bob Dylan paid tribute to him in his 1983 song “Blind Willie McTell,”. Appropriately the refrain is “And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”


Over the Rainbow–Judy Garland

Over the Rainbow” is a ballad, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg. They wrote this song for the movie The Wizard of Oz.  Actress Judy Garland, sings it in her starring role as Dorothy Gale. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and became Garland’s signature song. In addition it became one of the most enduring standards of the 20th century.

The RIAA and NEA rank this song number one on their “Songs of the Century” list . The American Film Institute also ranked the song the greatest movie song of all time. The AFI ranks “Over the Rainbow” #1 on “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs“.

It was also used in renditions by Frank Sinatra, by Al Bowlly, by Doris Day on her album Hooray For Hollywood (1958) (Vol.1), by Tony Bennett on his albums Tony Bennett Sings a String of Harold Arlen (1961) and Here’s to the Ladies (1995), by Ella Fitzgerald, by Sarah Vaughan, and by Norma Waterson, among others.

Over the Rainbow Lyrics

Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true

Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh, why can’t I?

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow.
Why, oh, why can’t I?


Starting Today–Spiritual Music by Secular Artists

Spirituality is in the ear of the beholder.

Songwriters have always filled their music with spiritual meaning. In many cases they were on their own spiritual journey. They used their popularity to reach a broader audience. Meaning they did not than limit their music to a single genre. This fall i will share with you some of my favorite spiritual music from the 50s through today.

Because she is on everyone’s mind this week I will begin with a single from Aretha Franklin’s 1956 debut album. Her legacy as one of the greatest singers of our generation began with gospel music.

Songs of Faith is the debut studio album by American singer Aretha Franklin. It was recorded live when Franklin was age 14 at New Bethel Baptist Church.

Music with a dash of trivia