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:
- Blind Willie Johnson
- Sister Rosetta Tharp
- Reverend Gary Davis and
- Washington Phillips.
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.
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.”