As is typical for seminal bluesmen with the surname Johnson, the life story of Blind Willie Johnson is one steeped in apocrypha and speculation. An often repeated, anecdotally-confirmed theory about him is that his blindness can be attributed to an accident involving a spillage of caustic lye that occurred during an argument between his parents when he was a mere seven years old. Overcoming physical debilitation and undoubted mental trauma to become a highly accomplished guitarist and one of the most important blues musicians of all time, Johnson's inadequately celebrated life and works are a profound lesson in humility when considered from the coddled perspective of modern life.
The obscurity of the truth certainly casts a mythical shadow bordering on the ethereal over this humble collection of gospel blues recordings dated from the late 1920s, but regardless of the reality of his life, Blind Willie Johnson's voice itself resembles an autobiographical tapestry; weathered and scarred but richly complex and steadfast in presence and the commanding ability to court both power and beauty. His gruff, rapturous roar is stylistically remarkable for something from the era; his larynx sounds as though it were thoroughly calloused, self-flagellated from zealously belting out these songs thousands of times over to anyone who would listen. These rawer intonations are frequently tempered with higher more tuneful melancholic croons, a juxtaposition perfectly suited to the lyrical themes of suffering and stoicism. On many tracks he is accompanied by a single female vocalist, performed by mostly unfortunately anonymous women over the various recording sessions, though the most frequently heard is credited as his wife, Willis B. Harris. These more pleasant female voices add gentle balance to Johnson’s powerful rasp, such as the great interplays on "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" and "Can't Nobody Hide from God". In other places, the harmonising is often slightly unsteady, but this only adds to the rustic and spontaneous feel of the recordings, as if this was simply something you overheard while walking down the street.
Despite his disability, Johnson's tactile guitar mastery is more evidence of a truly indomitable spirit. Though likely chosen as a convenient vehicle for the arrangements, he plays the instrument beautifully; the dogged rhythms, haunting slide-heavy melodies and understated licks, captured delicately by the simple production, are truly timeless and arresting. Probably the most famous track, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", with its lingering notes and sombre thrums against Johnson's wordless moans, paints a picture of lonely but contented contemplation and is easily as atmospherically vivid as any track one could care to name from the century that has followed.
Though these tunes are heavily directed by their gospel influence - some will be recognisable as rearranged hymn book staples - Johnson grounds his preaching in the unmistakably terrestrial melancholy of blues; even the most devout of these tracks is wrought with a sense of sobering worldly sorrow. Johnson rarely professes to understand the ways of almighty and largely keeps his lyrics personal, anecdotal, or otherwise adjacent to reality; discussing his memories of his mother, past as a gambler, and mentioning contemporary events like the great war, the sinking of the titanic and the Spanish influenza epidemic. Lines like "If I don't read, my soul be lost" and "dying will be easy" frequently cut through Johnson's biblical rhetoric to show his persistent struggle with belief. No matter the listener's relationship with God, it’s difficult to be unmoved by tracks like the cathartic "Lord I Just Can't Keep from Crying", the wistful "Let Your Light Shine On Me", or the existential "Soul of a Man". For us sinners, this compilation is about as close to a religious experience that many of us will ever get.