Tuesday, December 23, 2008
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 made 30 commercial recording studio record sides in five separate sessions for Columbia Records from 1927–1930. On some of these recordings Johnson uses a fast rhythmic picking style, while on others he plays slide guitar. According to a reputed one-time acquaintance, Blind Willie McTell (1898-1959), Johnson played with a brass ring, although other sources cite him using a knife.Some of Johnson's most famous recordings include "In My Time of Dying" (identified as "Jesus Make up My Dying Bed" on his recordings), his rendition of the famous gospel song "Let Your Light Shine On Me", as well as the raw, powerful "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground", where he sings in wordless hum and moans about the crucifixion of Jesus. This song was a "moaning" piece related to the Bentonia school of blues practiced by such "eerie voiced" artists as Skip James and Robert Johnson.On 14 of his recordings he is accompanied by Willie B Harris or an as-yet-unidentified female singer. This group of recordings includes "Church I'm Fully Saved Today", "John the Revelator" (a cover of which is featured on the soundtrack of Blues Brothers 2000, sung by Taj Mahal), "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond", and "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning".
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 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 and blindness as contributing factors.) 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.
His records have kept his music tremendously influential and his songs have been covered by several popular artists, including Led Zeppelin (who included his photograph on their second album), Bob Dylan, The 77s, Beck, Phil Keaggy and The White Stripes (who have covered "John the Revelator", as well as covering "Motherless Children Have A Hard Time" and "Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Cryin'" live)."If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down" was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary; retitled as "Samson and Delilah", it was frequently performed by the Grateful Dead and appears on the studio album Terrapin Station; Rev.Gary Davis also has recorded a version of the song. "John the Revelator" was also recorded by delta blues musician Son House, and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" was recorded by another delta blues musician, Fred McDowell. "Nobody's Fault But Mine" has also been covered by Mason Jennings, Nina Simone, and was modified by Led Zeppelin. Nick Cave has performed "John the Revelator" live, and based his song "City of Refuge".Johnson's recordings and legacy have crossed over into other media and cultural contexts. Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground was included on the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.A Movie,Whose soundtrack is partly based on his music,called "The Ladykillers".Ry Cooder, who based his desolate soundtrack to Paris, Texas on "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", described it as "the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music".
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
In the 1990s, he began recording for the Oxford, Mississippi, label Fat Possum Records. Founded by Living Blues magazine editor Peter Redvers-Lee and Matthew Johnson, the label was dedicated to recording ageing North Mississippi bluesmen such as Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Burnside remained with Fat Possum from that time until his death, and he usually performed with his friend and understudy, the slide guitarist Kenny Brown, with whom he began playing in 1971 and claimed as his "adopted son."In the mid 1990s, Burnside attracted the attention of Jon Spencer, the leader of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, touring and recording with this group and gaining a new audience in the process.After the death of Kimbrough and the burning of Kimbrough's juke joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi, Burnside quit recording studio material for Fat Possum,though he did continue to tour.After a heart attack in 2001, Burnside's doctor advised him to stop drinking; Burnside did, but he reported that change left him unable to play.Burnside had a powerful, expressive voice and played both electric and acoustic guitars (both with a slide and without). His drone-based style was a characteristic of North Mississippi hill country blues rather than Mississippi Delta blues. Like other country blues musicians, he did not always adhere to 12- or 16-bar blues patterns, often adding extra beats according to his preference. He called this "Burnside style" and often commented that his backing musicians needed to be familiar with his style in order to be able to play along with him.Burnside collaborated in the late 1990s with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on the albums A Ass Pocket of Whiskey and Mr. Wizard. Consequently, he gained the attention of many within this underground music scene.The 2007 Samuel L. Jackson / Christina Ricci film, Black Snake Moan is infused with countless Burnside nods, including: the Reverend R. L. character.He passed away at St. Francis Hospital on September 1, 2005 at the age of 78
Friday, December 12, 2008
Sunday, December 7, 2008
House was an important influence on Muddy Waters and also on Robert Johnson. A seminal Delta blues figure, he remains influential today, with his music being covered by blues-rock groups such as The White Stripes.The middle of three brothers, House was born in Riverton, two miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Around age seven or eight, he was brought by his mother to Tallulah, Louisiana, after his parents separated. The young Son House was determined to become a Baptist preacher, and at age 15 began his preaching career. Despite the church's firm stand against blues music and the sinful world which revolved around it, House became attracted to it and taught himself guitar in his mid 20s, after moving back to the Clarksdale area, inspired by the work of Willie Wilson.After killing a man, allegedly in self-defense, he spent time at Parchman Farm in 1928 and 1929. The official story on the killing is that sometime around 1927 or 1928, he was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree. Son was wounded in the leg, and shot the man dead. He received a 15-year sentence at Parchman Farm prison. He began playing alongside Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson and Fiddlin' Joe Martin around Robinsonville, Mississippi, and north to Memphis, Tennessee, until 1942.
Son House recorded for Paramount Records in 1930 and for Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress in 1941 and 1942. He then faded from public view until the country blues revival in the 1960s when, after a long search of the Mississippi Delta region by Nick Perls, Dick Waterman and Phil Spiro, he was "re-discovered" in June 1964 in Rochester, New York, where he had lived since 1943; House had been retired from the music business for many years, working for the New York Central Railroad, and was completely unaware of the international revival of enthusiasm for his early recordings. He subsequently toured extensively in the US and Europe and recorded for CBS records. Like Mississippi John Hurt he was welcomed into the music scene of the 1960s and played at Newport Folk Festival in 1964, the New York Folk Festival in July 1965, and the October 1967 European tour of the American Folk Festival along with Skip James and Bukka White. In the summer of 1970, House toured Europe once again, including an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival; a recording of his London concerts was released by Liberty Records.
Ill health plagued his later years and in 1974 he retired once again, and later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx. He was buried at the Mt. Hazel Cemetery. Members of the Detroit Blues Society raised money through benefit concerts to put a fitting monument on his grave. He had been married five times.House's music has influenced blues-rock groups such as the White Stripes, who covered his song "Death Letter" (also reworked by Skip James and Robert Johnson) on their album De Stijl, and later performed it at the 2004 Grammy Awards. The White Stripes also incorporated sections of a traditional song Son House recorded - "John the Revelator" - into the song "Cannon" from their eponymous debut album The White Stripes. Jack White of the White Stripes has cited his a cappella songs, like "Grinning in Your Face", as a large influence.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Hopkins took at second shot at Houston in 1946. While singing on Dowling St. in Houston's Third Ward (which would become his home base) he was discovered by Lola Anne Cullum from the Los Angeles based record label, Aladdin Records. She convinced Hopkins to travel to L.A. where he accompanied pianist Wilson Smith. The duo recorded twelve tracks in their first sessions in 1946. An Aladdin Records executive decided the pair needed more dynamism in their names and dubbed Hopkins "Lightnin'" and Wilson "Thunder".
Hopkins recorded more sides for Aladdin in 1947 but soon grew homesick. He returned to Houston and began recording for the Gold Star Records label. During the late 40s and 1950s Hopkins rarely performed outside Texas. However, he recorded prolifically. Occasionally traveling to the Mid-West and Eastern United States for recording sessions and concert appearances. It has been estimated that he recorded between 800 and 1000 songs during his career. He performed regular at clubs in and around Houston, particularly in Dowling St. where he had first been discovered. He recorded his hits "T-Model Blues" and "Tim Moore's Farm" at SugarHill Recording Studios in Houston. By the mid to late 1950s his prodigious output of quality recordings had gained him a following among African Americans and blues music aficionados.
In 1959 Hopkins was contacted by folklorist Mack McCormick who hoped to bring him to the attention of the broader musical audience which was caught up in the folk revival. McCormack presented Hopkins to integrated audiences first in Houston and then in California. Hopkins debuted at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960 appearing alongside Joan Baez and Pete Seeger performing the spiritual Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep. In 1960, he signed to Tradition Records. Solid recordings followed including his masterpiece song "Mojo Hand" in 1960.Hopkins was an influence on local musicians around Houston and Austin, Texas in the 1950s and 1960s. His recordings from the early 1960s reveal a lead guitar style that anticipated the popular blues based rock guitar of the later 1960s. Jimi Hendrix reportedly became interested in blues music listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins records with his father.
By the early 1960s Lightnin' Hopkins reputation as one of the most compelling blues performers was cemented. He had finally earned the success and recognition which were overdue. In 1968, Hopkins recorded the album Free Form Patterns backed by the rhythm section of psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s Hopkins released one or sometimes two albums a year and toured, playing at major folk festivals and at folk clubs and on college campuses in the U.S. and internationally. He travelled widely in the United States, and overcame his fear of flying to join the 1964 American Folk Blues Festival; visit Germany and the Netherlands 13 years later; ; and play a six-city tour of Japan in 1978.
Filmmaker Les Blank captured the Texas troubadour's informal lifestyle most vividly in his acclaimed 1967 documentary, The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins.
Houston's poet-in-residence for 35 years, Hopkins recorded more albums than any other bluesman.Hopkins died of cancer in Houston in 1982.