God Don’t Never Change –The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
With a voice that sounded like he gargled whisky and razorblades bolstered by raw, cutting slide guitar and a batch of some of the most frighteningly intense blues/gospel tunes ever recorded, it’s surprising that Blind Willie Johnson’s name doesn’t appear more frequently when contemporary artists list their influences. And, according to this long overdue tribute’s liner notes from compiler Jeffrey Gaskill, it took over seven years to acquire the financial backing — partially raised through an innovative Kickstarter campaign — to make this inspiring if somewhat modest eleven song set for the Texas troubadour a reality.
The contributors represent an impressive cross section of Americana. From Lucinda Williams (two tracks), Maria McKee, Rickie Lee Jones and the Cowboy Junkies, to Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Sinead O’Connor, the wildly diverse acts lay their styles atop a dozen of Johnson’s better known, and most influential tunes. Perhaps the marquee name here is Tom Waits (also two selections), whose own similarly styled gruff vocal and edgy lyrics were clearly inspired by Johnson’s work.
The approach is suitably stripped down to present these tunes that Johnson recorded in the late 1920s with appropriate reverence. Sinead O’Connor’s “Trouble Will Soon be Over” is accompanied just by handclaps, a skeletal drumbeat and church backing vocals. Likewise, Trucks/Tedechi’s “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” rolls along with unplugged slide guitar, supporting singers and backing hand percussion. Waits overdubs himself over an old traditional recording of “Country Rag (East Texas Rag)” and the Cowboy Junkies go one better by using an original Johnson recording of “Jesus is Coming Soon” on their performance of the track to riveting, even bone-chilling effect. Lucinda swamps her way through “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and sounds inspired rocking out on the title track with searing slide from Doug Pettibone.
Luther Dickinson is the perfect choice to bring a fife and drum arrangement to “Bye and Bye I’m Going to see the King” and it’s always a treat to hear Maria McKee, especially when she wails over her own overdubbed guitar, piano, organ and percussion for “Let Your Light Shine on Me.” Only Rickie Lee Jones, who sounds as if she just woke to sing arguably Johnson’s most visceral tune “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” feels like a misstep.
The disc, with its 20 page book of notes and details on Johnson’s short life (he was 45 when he passed in 1947), is beautifully packaged, making this a wonderful and longtime gestating homage to one of America’s most treasured, if often overlooked, blues and gospel singers. But, at under 45 minutes, you’re left wanting more.
Here’s hoping it’s commercially successful enough to inspire a second volume.