Blind Willie Johnson Sleeps Among the Stars

The incredible story of a legendary blues artist who died penniless, but who's music is on board a spacecraft currently leaving the Solar System.


Image by Marc Burckhardt

On September 18, 1945 authorities were called to a burnt out house at 1440 Forrest Street, Beaumont, Texas, where the body of a man had been found.

But the man hadn't died in the fire, the flames had ravaged this house weeks earlier. Instead they found what looked like a homeless man who had been sleeping in the burnt out building on a bed of damp newspapers with his wife.

Investigators found that the building was registered to Rev W. J. Johnson. They learnt that the deceased man was Willie Johnson - the same man who owned the remains of this home, but who had no money to go elsewhere after the fire.

Johnson's health was bad and made worse by his living conditions in which he developed pneumonia. Shortly before he died Johnson went to the local hospital but was turned away for reasons still unclear to this day.

Blind Willie was born about 150 miles away somewhere around Brenham in 1897, but he wasn't born blind. The exact details have never been confirmed, but it is widely believed that he was blinded at the age of 7 by his stepmother who was seeking revenge against his father for beating her on suspicion of cheating. As the story was later told by Willie's wife, Angeline Johnson, who often sang and performed with him in later life, Willie's step-mom threw a common household cleaning agent, Lye, directly into his eyes.

By the time of this cruelty he had already suffered much in life with his natural mother dying years earlier, but he was already a passionate musician having built his own cigar box guitar at the age of 5.

Johnson's professional career began as a child when his father would drop him off at street corners to perform for money.

Columbia Records discovered him, and between 1927 and 1930 he did 5 recording sessions for them where he laid down some 30 tracks. One of those tracks was this song where he plays slide guitar and uses minimalist vocals to express loneliness while calling to the heavens, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground":

In the years following Johnson's death he came to be recognized by some of the world's most successful blues musicians as one of the greatest blues men who ever lived. Eric Clapton said Johnson's performance in the song It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine was "probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear." Ry Cooder said that Dark Was The Night was "the most transcendent piece in all American music." Johnson's music would later be recorded by a diverse range of successful artists such as Steve Vai, Led Zeppelin, and Peter Paul and Mary. His music was also performed many times in concert by the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen.

About 25 years after Johnson died, NASA realized there was a once in a lifetime opportunity to send spacecraft out on an orbit that would reach the outer planets. The planetary alignment that would occur between 1977 and 1989 would make it possible to send space probes using gravity assists to fly by Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. This orbit would also eventually take these spacecraft, if funded, out of the Solar System and into interstellar space for the first time.

Voyager Space Craft

Then one of the scientists involved in the program, which would become known as Voyager, had a brilliant idea... place a recording of Earth sounds on the Voyager 1 & 2 probes and they might just gain enough public support, and in turn political support, to guarantee funding for the mission to the outer planets.

The scientist who had this brilliant idea was Carl Sagan.

One of the recordings chosen to represent humanity to the stars was Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground". Sagan explained this decision by saying, "Johnson's song concerns a situation he faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight."

So why are we telling you this story, and why now?

Because the Voyager program was funded, and the two probes were launched in 1977, and because in recent days some scientists have said that Voyager 1 has left our solar system. The science here is imprecise because we've never done this before, and we're not sure where the edge of the heliosphere really is.

Regardless of which scientists are right about Voyager 1's position with respect to the edge of the Solar System, one thing we know is that as the space probe departs our little piece of the cosmos, whatever it finds on the other side of the heliosphere, anyone who may exist out there who finds it will find the story of the human condition, and they will discover one of our greatest.

We, the people of Earth, apologize for the way we treated you, and we are sorry for the way your life on this planet ended. We also thank you for what you have given us, and we praise to the heavens your name, Willie Johnson.

Listen to the music: here are some recordings by Blind Willie Johnson as well as other artists performing cover versions.
 

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