Among Blind Willie Johnson’s 30 recordings of blues/gospel songs with fire and brimstone intensity is one song which stands alone as singular and haunting. Recorded in 1927, the instrumental Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground is unlike any of his other songs and unlike any other song on this earth.
About Blind Willie
At five years old in 1902 Blind Willie Johnson(not Blind Johnson’s Willie) told his father he wanted to be a preacher and fashioned himself a cigar-box guitar. Thus setting up the two trajectories in his life: music and religion. Unlike some other musicians of his time, he had no trouble blending the blues(Devil’s music) and religion.
A city directory shows that in 1945, a Rev. W.J. Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, Beaumont, Texas and this is the same address listed on his death certificate. He died in 1945 after his home burned. With no money and nowhere else to go he slept in the ruins of his home. He contracted malarial fever from sleeping on a wet bed in the summer Texas heat and died on September 18, 1945.
Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground
A slide guitar instrumental Jack White called “the greatest example of slide guitar ever recorded”, accompanied only by Johnson’s humming and moaning. It is in the style of “lining out”, a call-and-response style of singing hymns that is common in southern African-American churches. His humming and moaning creates the impression of “unison moaning”, a melodic style common in Baptist churches where, instead of harmonizing, a choir hums or sings the same vocal part with slight variations among its members
The musician Leadbelly gives us an idea of how this song might have been sung in church:
“The Amen corner sisters, the ones who do the moanin’, starts out… and when the men is praying, to give ’em some spirit, they’d moan behind ’em and that would make ’em pray.”
The song’s title is borrowed from a hymn that was popular in the nineteenth century American South with fasola(or Sacred Harp) singers, “Gethsemane”, written by English clergyman Thomas Haweis in 1792. This hymn was one of many taught to American Negro slaves in the 1800’s by British missionaries.
Dark was the night, and cold the ground
On which the Lord was laid;
His sweat like drops of blood ran down;
In agony he prayed.”Father, remove this bitter cup,
If such Thy sacred will;
If not, content to drink it up
Thy pleasure I fulfill.”
Go to the garden, sinner, see
Those precious drops that flow;
The heavy load He bore for thee;
For thee he lies so low.Then learn of Him the cross to bear;
Thy Father’s will obey;
And when temptations press thee near,
Awake to watch and pray.
However, knowing Blind Willie’s life as a preacher and that all of his songs are religious in nature, in addition to the knowledge that “Dark was the night, cold was the ground” is the opening lines to a Christian hymn taught to slaves in the 1800’s. It can be known with confidence that this song is about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
That it is the musical and aural experience of that event, it is the expression of that event and the significance of it in the soul of man. Of course it is not only about the crucifixion – to reduce the sounds emanating from Blind Willie to only being about the crucifixion would be to cheapen it.
The song was chosen for inclusion on the Voyager mission which is a sort of time capsule launched into the cosmos with sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them. Of the two spacecrafts, Voyager 1 has left the solar system and entered interstellar space, and Voyager 2 is expected to do around 2016.
One of the curators, Carl Sagan, chose the song as he believed it properly encapsulated the essence of loneliness that mankind faces. “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.”
More sacred than any church or anything in church……..
“Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.”
Walt Whitman. Song of Myself
The song is essentially a mood piece, without lyrics and a story all we have to go on as far as interpreting the song is the sounds and what they invoke in us. This song can only be heard at night. It just does not belong where the sun is shining. This is not to say that it is a depressing, sad song. Perhaps to some it is perceived as a bleak expression. If so, go into it fully, look deeper – beyond the surface. Look and listen with the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf.
Dark was the night, and cold the ground/On which the Lord was laid. The background crackle of vinyl is the dark night and the cold ground on which Blind Willie lays down his soul baring moan. The silence which pervades the song – it is the untouchable, imperceivable, inaudible.