William Johnson; echoes of an unimportant life.
There used to be a big debate about whether he was born in 1902 or 1904. Looking over his bio again in this age of the internet, it seems that someone has actually done the legwork and found a piece of paper that says he was born on January 22, 1897. It’s from Wikipedia and since he’s not a controversial figure, it’s probably true.
A black kid, born to poor black parents in rural Texas; he’d lots of company; there were plenty of poor white folks around there too. There’s not much known about his early life but what few facts that are, indicate it wasn’t the best of starts. The kid had an aptitude for music though. One story has it that he made a sort of guitar for himself out of bits of wood. It’s unconfirmed, as are most details of his life, but I like to think it might be true. Another story is that as a five-year old, he told his father that he would grow up to be a preacher and this he certainly did.
His mother died when he was a young child and his father remarried a few years later. By all accounts, it wasn’t a happy match. They fought a lot and she had a vile temper which, combined with a drinking problem, seems to have made her viciously unstable. The story goes that in one of her rages, she rubbed Lye into the seven-year old child’s eyes and blinded him permanently. From then on, he wasn’t called Willie anymore but Blind Willie.
His Pappy, being an enterprising type with a big heart, used to position him on the sidewalk in town for the day and leave him there to play for tips. Like I said, not the best of starts.
About his adult life, very little hard detail is known. What is clear though, is that he appears to have earned a crust by playing the guitar in bars in the evenings and being a street preacher in the day. America has a long tradition when it comes to lay preachers and the concept of a street preacher is foreign to Europe. We’re not talking Billy Graham or tele-evangelists here but rather someone who could engage with ordinary people in desperate need, this was the time of the great depression after all, and was prepared to share with them whatever he’d got, which by all accounts wasn’t much. In short, he bashed the Bible by day and played the guitar by night.
He died on September 18, 1945 and that seems to be a confirmed date. Apparently, the place he rented and operated as the House of Prayer caught fire and all the neighbours rushed in with bowls of water to put it out. In their enthusiasm to help, they drenched him thoroughly as well. He continued to live in the damp ruins of his ministry and he actually died of malarial fever sometime later. The exact location of his grave is unknown but has been narrowed down, we think, to Blanchette Cemetery, Beaumont, Texas, where a modest monument has been erected in his memory by the researchers who tracked down the location.
There’s only one picture of him that we know of and that’s the one at the top of this article. He was poor all his life and seems to have spent it doing what he could to help other people out. There is a strong spiritual element to his songs, which reflects the caring preacher in him but there are also a few angry songs too; most notably “If I had my way, I’d tear the building down”, which rumour has nearly caused a riot when he sang it outside a New Orleans courthouse but I’m not inclined to believe that one. Somehow, it’s a bit too political for him. Revolutionary gestures like that tend to be done by the well off rather than the poor.
He lived his entire life at the bottom of the social pile, unnoticed by the world at large, so consequently his life was undocumented, except for a death certificate. The one interesting blip in it was the five recording sessions he made at Columbia Records, out of which came the 30 songs that are his musical legacy. They are a mixture of his performance of traditional songs and fresh compositions. The tragedy of course, is that everything else he ever wrote or performed is gone and lost forever, like tears in the rain, to quote Roy Batty.
That was his life really.
Spin the clock forward to 1977 and NASA, in the shape of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), is launching the two Voyager probes on what came to be known as the Grand Tour.
The Grand Tour is a great illustration of joined up thinking and more importantly, really listening to a bright young kid who’s had an idea and not dismissing it out of hand. Gary Flandro, who’s now the eminent Professor Gary Flandro, was working at NASA as an intern for a year in 1964. It was part of finishing his PhD but think “the work experience” kid and you’ll be in the frame.
He knew that a body falling into the gravitational field of a planet would pick up speed until it eventually smashed into the planet. The “what if” bit of thinking he did, was to suppose it was on a trajectory which would not hit the planet, but miss it narrowly. It would gain speed without expending any fuel and would then be flung out into space from it at some angle. This is what’s called the planetary slingshot effect and it can also be used to brake an incoming space vehicle into a stable orbit. This is how the Apollo moon vehicles were brought home.
The glorious bit of joined up thinking he then did, was to imagine that if you computed the timing and trajectory of the body just right, it would be slingshotted onto the next planet, where it would again be accelerated on to its next destination. He did some back of an envelope calculations and it appeared possible to launch a probe at a precise time and trajectory that could use multiple slingshot effects to visit in turn every significant planet in our solar system, without requiring mega amounts of reaction mass, or fuel as us non-rocket scientists think of it.
What’s more, the idea could be used to exploit a very beneficial configuration of the major planets in our solar system, which was due to occur in the late 1970s and would not happen again for 176 years. If they could hit the required launch window, it would reduce the time taken to reach the edge of our solar system from 40 years to just under 10 years.
His supervisors listened to the idea and after letting a few Brainiac-sized computers chaw on the problem for a while, realised it was not only very possible but very doable as well, because it would be a relatively cheap mission. That’s the grand tour and the two Voyager probes not only did it, but have now headed out of our solar system and into the unknown.
They have discovered several unexpected and fascinating things and I fully expect them to continue doing so. Frankly, it was never expected for them to last so long or work so well and as the furthest distant artefacts of humanity, I can only marvel at the durability of their design, but that’s not what I’m concentrating on here.
It’s the disc they both contain.
In some meeting back in the 20th century, someone raised the remote possibility of the probes not only working but actually heading off into the deep space outside our solar system. What if eventually an alien intelligence encountered them? Shouldn’t they contain something about us, the people who launched it? This was in keeping with the ethos of an era which was much more optimistic about science and space exploration, which were not viewed back then as somehow evil but more as a potentially open-ended adventure.
The disc was an early version of what was to become the CD. It contains a lot of information about us and our cultures; it was meant as humanity’s greeting to another intelligence. Among all the stuff, is a selection of music and it’s a pretty good one.
For example, it’s got Bach and Mozart, who’re both musicians I love. There’s something impossibly beautiful about the intricate baroque cathedrals of sound constructed by Bach and I can listen to Mozart until the cows come home; he never had to polish a bar of music, it’s all first-time, main line, in your face excellence. My father, an accomplished amateur musician, once told me that music was all mathematics really and if that’s true, then I suppose their stuff has the elegance of pure mathematics.
But there’s a piece on it by another musician of interest though. It’s called “Dark was the night, cold was the ground” and it’s by William Johnson. It’s a curious piece of music. I first heard it when I was in a bad situation and was hurting. There was something eerie about it. It was as if I was listening in stillness to someone else who was there with me, but we were both somehow listening together. It isn’t quite blues or gospel but something else altogether; Ry Cooder called it the basis of all slide guitar and “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music”, which is a lot of responsibility for any one song to bear. The technical merits of the song I’ll leave to Ry, because he’s a knowledgeable and gifted guitarist, but I do know that it is important in terms of its impact on me and others I’ve spoken to.
Most of his songs have since been covered by a wide range of musicians such as Bob Dylan, the White Stripes, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, Nina Simone and Depeche Mode, to name but a few. A good musician, like all good artists, has an intimate knowledge of the work of their predecessors. If they don’t have that, you’re looking at a lightweight. And yet, he’s a lot more than a musician’s musician, which can be the kiss of death for an artist, because it elevates them inside some exclusive and elite circle of good taste. His work is open and approachable by anyone.
The rest of his songs that we’re lucky enough to have are good, in some cases very good, but this song is different, even from them. It defies categorisation. People seem to hear in it whatever they need to help them get by.
I once listened to it while visiting a friend, who was fighting a battle with an illness that we were both kidding along he was going to beat. I remarked that there was a well of human sadness and grief that only a few people could reach down into and that song was it. No, he said, it was all about hope and comfort in hard times. To settle the point, he replayed it.
Listening to it, we were astonished to realise that a number we knew and loved so well, didn’t actually have any words at all; just some haunting sounds from a guitar and a man somehow singing from the soul, without the need for words. My friend had it right though, there is a deep sense of fortitude and comfort in it.
It’s a personal belief but I think we’re all important. Everybody’s life has a point, some maybe more modest than others. Perhaps William Johnson’s was just to help me and others get through some rough times, long after he was dead. In a sense, I suppose his ministry continues, because he’s still bringing comfort to people in need of it.
If the disc from Voyager is ever discovered by another intelligence, I’m sure they’ll work out the intricacies of Bach and the sheer sophistication of Mozart. The real test will be if they are moved by “Dark was the night, cold was the ground”. If they are, then they’ll know there’s a kindred species somewhere out there in the universe.
Anyway, after such a build up but only when you’ve got a peaceful moment, have a listen to “Dark was the night, cold was the ground” by William Johnson and make your own mind up.
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