Monday, August 11, 2008

The Blind (Willie) Leading the Blind: VRD 08/12/08

As a child I distinctly remember going to a local garage sale with my mother who, having acquired an obsession with antiques, managed to buy an original Edison Phonograph and a bushel full of wax cylinders under the auspice that she was getting a bargain (@ $20, who's to say she wasn't?). The deal done,that phonograph sat for a number of years before an elderly clockmaker of some repute managed to restore it’s delicate system of gears and springs to some semblance of order. Some might find the expense hardly worth the effort, but where those same people see junk, my mother saw potential; a potential I have seen realized, having had the pleasure of watching this ancient machine spin to life for the first time in ages, and having actually heard it’s tiny bandwidth issue out of the requisite trumpet. Perhaps it is this self-same concept of ambiguous ‘potential’ that makes the search for records worth all the while.

Living, as I do, in the town of Edison New Jersey (Menlo Park is less than 100 yards away), the exploits of one Thomas Alva Edison are close to my heart, as it is in the hearts of any NJ resident with a mind of history. He is our Orvil Wright (if forced to choose between the two brothers) or, if the Ruskies weren't so possessive, then our own Nicoli Tesla. Perhaps he is both those things, that and a dash of Dr. Theremin, a man whose impressive work owes a certain debt, as do those previously mentioned, to the Wizard of Menlo Park.

It is in the spirit of that aforementioned antiquated device, and it’s creator, that I have chosen to dip uncharacteristically deep into the digs to spin something that, while not as old as Mr. Edison's miracle cylinder, is none-the-less, a shinning example of the kind of 'Potential' once regularly lost to the world, now captured for the sake of history and posterity.

"Blind Willie Johnson was born in 1897 near Brenham, Texas (before the discovery of his death certificate, Temple, Texas had been suggested as his birthplace). When he was five, he told his father he wanted to be a preacher, and then made himself a cigar box guitar. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried soon after her death.

It is thought that Johnson was married twice, first to a woman with the same first name, Willie B Harris, and later to a young singer named Angeline, who was the sister of blues guitarist L.C. Robinson. No marriage certificates have yet been discovered. As Angeline Johnson often sang and performed with him, the first person to attempt to research his biography, Samuel Charters, made the mistake of assuming it was Angeline who had sung on several of Johnson's records. However, later research showed that it was Johnson's first wife.

Johnson was not born blind, and, although it is not known how he lost his sight, Angeline Johnson provided the following account to Samuel Charters. She said when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man. The stepmother then picked up a handful of lye and threw it, not at Willie's father, but into the face of young Willie.

His father would often leave him on street corners to sing for money, where his powerful voice left an indelible impression on passers-by. Legend has it that he was arrested for nearly starting a riot at a New Orleans courthouse with a powerful rendition of "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down", a song about Samson and Delilah. According to Samuel Charters, however, he was simply arrested while singing for tips in front of a Custom House, by a police officer who misconstrued the title lyric and mistook it for incitement.

Johnson remained poor until the end of his life, preaching and singing in the streets of Beaumont, Texas to anyone who would listen. A city directory shows that in 1944, a Rev W J Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, Beaumont, Texas. This is the same address listed on Blind Willie's death certificate. In 1945, his home burned to the ground. With nowhere else to go, Johnson lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a wet bed. He lived like this until he contracted pneumonia two weeks later, and died. (The death certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis as a contributing factor.)In a later interview his wife said she tried to take him to a hospital but they refused to admit him because he was black, while other sources report that, according to Johnson's wife, his refusal was due to his blindness. Although there is some dispute as to where his grave is, members of the Beaumont community have committed to finding the site and preserving it."

Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Crying - Blind Willie Johnson

Keep Your Lamplight Trimmed and Burning - Blind Willie Johnson

In the end it is all about preservation. If you consider momentarily how much music has been lost over the centuries through no fault but the inadequacies of the day's technology, then Thomas Edison's contribution seems all the more poinient. I hope you dig today's sentimental, if not 'long winded' post. Below you will find a link to a number of excellent bloggers celebrating 'Vinyl Record Day 08'. Give em' a whirl.

1 comment:

Todd Lucas said...

Nice post, I agree with the importance of preservation. As for not being long-winded, hey that's a plus of sorts. I rambled on in my VRD post.