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The Fastest Way To Live Forever: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson

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Blind Willie Johnson remains one of the most enigmatic and mysterious figures in music history.

A paucity of biographical information gives rise to myth faster than any other element–the unknown yields only to legend because, as we know, legend is where myths prosper best because they are accepted so readily in the absence of Google-able facts.

So Johnson may or may not have been blinded by a lye-throwing step-mother or played slide guitar with a knife–we know and we don’t know and in both we have all we need because nothing can blunt a good story like the truth. The myth of Johnson has become bigger than the life he lived and that, as far as I can tell, is the fastest way to live forever.

What we do know is that Johnson had three solid years of recording (1927-1930) and although his output may not have produced a treasure trove of hundreds of songs just waiting to be forensically appreciated in the rabbit-hole, binge-listening style that’s become the hallmark of our time, the brevity of the treasures Johnson offers remain some of the shiniest jewels you’ll ever come across.

The Texas-born musician threw down about thirty songs in his career, and though I may not be a numbers guy, the eleven chosen to be covered for God Don’t Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson, leave only nineteen left for you to pore over.

But start here first.

Tom Waits, who has Johnson’s gruff voice residing in his own soot-filled delivery, is the perfect man to throw out the opening pitch. His take on “The Soul Of A Man” might as well be the mission statement of the album. Over a ghostly handclap and the spectral trail of a female vocalist dwelling somewhere in the back of the arrangement, he sings: “Won’t somebody tell me/Answer if you can/Want somebody tell me/What is the soul of a man?”

It’s a fair question and a worthy grapple that mankind has been engaged in since the beginning of all this.

The answer, of course, is that we have no idea and Johnson both knows this and is annoyed by it. His composition is perhaps one of the finest philosophical moments ever captured in song–summoning biblical lore and the wisdom of earthly travels, Johnson still comes up empty and his question is one that wants an answer yet knows there isn’t one. In fact, “The Soul Of A Man” has more in common with Lucretius’ On The Nature Of The Universe than anything the blues ever conjured. In fact, when Lucretius writes: “For men know not what the nature of the soul is; whether it is engendered with us, or whether, on the contrary, it is infused into us at birth, whether it perishes with us, dissolved by death, or whether it haunts the gloomy shades and vast pools of Orcus,” not only is he presaging the same question that Johnson asks centuries later, it acts as a kind of ancestral blueprint for the song.

Existentialism runs through Johnson’s work and it seems the musician was consumed not so much by the light as much as where it goes when it’s gone. That said, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi roll thorugh “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” with soulful precision. A metaphorical mediation on mortality, the song is as lyrically economical as it is emotionally wrenching. Later, Luther Dickinson’s dark march of “Bye And Bye I’m Going To See The King” is funereal and oddly rousing; Sinéad O’Connor’s percussive and stirring take on “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” is revelatory and the Cowboy Junkies’ “Jesus Is Coming Soon” is beautifully grim business.

Like Lucinda Williams, Waits appears twice–he also offers a rendition of “John The Revelator”–while his old romantic foil Ricki Lee Jones offers a splendidly weary take of “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” But the finest moment here belongs to Maria McKee. McKee, who sang for Lone Justice in the ’80s, turns in such an exquisite performance of “Let Your Light Shine On Me” it’s hard to get past it. McKee is, quite frankly, one of the most powerful and stirring singers around and she sounds so deeply in the pocket here it’s nothing short of illuminating. She’s the light in the lighthouse she sings of and each breathless note she hits is a beam that will either guide a ship to safety or show that ship there’s no safety to sail to at all.

And that’s the stuff Johnson was most interested in.

Johnson’s songs are fraught with worry and questions but they’re also redolent with what surely must be belief. And in this contrast is where Johnson’s work really lives–it’s not that he didn’t have faith, it’s that he wasn’t sure if he had faith in the faith he had.