"Blind Willie" Johnson
Blind Willie Johnson (January 25, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was an American gospel blues singer and guitarist and evangelist. His landmark recordings completed between 1927 and 1930—thirty songs in total—display a combination of powerful "chest voice" singing, slide guitar skills, and originality that has influenced later generations of musicians. Even though Johnson's records sold well, as a street performer and preacher he had little wealth in his lifetime.
A revival of interest in Johnson's music began in the 1960s, following his inclusion on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and by the efforts of the blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. As a result, Johnson is credited as one of the most influential practitioners of the blues, and his slide guitar playing, particularly on his hymn "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", is highly acclaimed. Other recordings by Johnson include "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed", "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine", and "John the Revelator".
Johnson was not born blind, though he was impaired with the disability at an early age. It is uncertain how he lost his sight, but it is generally agreed by most biographers of Johnson that he was blinded by his stepmother when he was seven years old, a claim that was first made by Johnson's purported widow Angeline Johnson. In her recollection, Willie's father had violently confronted his stepmother about her infidelity, and during the argument she splashed Willie with a caustic solution of lye water, permanently blinding him. Other theories have also been developed to explain Johnson's visual impairment, including that he wore the wrong spectacles, that he viewed a partial solar eclipse that was observable over Texas in 1905, or a combination of the two.
Throughout the Great Depression and the 1940s, he performed in several cities and towns in Texas, including Beaumont. A city directory shows that in 1945, a Reverend W. J. Johnson—undoubtedly Blind Willie—operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, in Beaumont. In 1945, his home was destroyed by a fire, but, with nowhere else to go, Johnson continued to live in the ruins of his house, where he was exposed to the humidity. He contracted malarial fever, and no hospital would admit him, either because of his visual impairment, as Angeline Johnson stated in an interview with Charters, or because he was black. Over the course of the year, his condition steadily worsened until he died, on September 18, 1945.
According to his death certificate, he was buried in Blanchette Cemetery, in Beaumont. The location of the cemetery had been forgotten until it was rediscovered in 2009. His grave site remains unknown.
Johnson's song, Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground was selected to be included on the gold record of the Voyager 1 space probe, as an example of the music of Earth. The probe is currently outside of our solar system.