God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson
Like many, my first exposure to Blind Willie Johnson was via his recording of “John the Revelator,” included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a monumental collection of recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s that was so influential on the generations of folk-rooted artists that came to the fore in the 1950s, ‘60s and beyond. The artists on the Anthology – including Johnson – are the anchor of what Greil Marcus has termed the “old weird America.”
Johnson could have been one of the deepest sounding of the early bluesmen but was devoutly religious and only sang the gospel and spiritual songs he wrote or adapted from earlier sources. He recorded 30 tracks in all between 1927 and 1930 when the Great Depression effectively killed his recording career – the 2-CD set, The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (Columbia/Legacy) is highly recommended – but many of those songs have become standards of revival folk and blues artists from Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary to Eric Clapton.
God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson is a set of 11 of Johnson’s songs performed by an interesting group of contemporary artists.
Tom Waits – whose voice on some of his later recordings seems almost genetically descended from Johnson’s – leads off the set with a compelling version of “The Soul of a Man,” that is built on a sampled guitar track taken from a field recording of Smith Casey recorded by John Lomax and featuring Waits’ wife, Kathleen Brennan, on background vocals and their son, Casey Waits on drums. Waits returns later in the album with “John the Revelator.”
Lucinda Williams, who has a deep understanding of traditional southern music running through much of her own music, also turns in effective performances on two songs: “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” and the title track, “God Don’t Never Change.”
Interestingly, the only African American artists on the album, the Blind Boys of Alabama, turn in the single performance that seems least influenced by Johnson. Their infectious version of “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” is done in their time-honored style reflecting the religious joyousness that is always at the heart of their performances.
Among the other highlights are the call-and-response version of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” by Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi; a deeply felt rendition of “Light from the Light House” by Maria McKee; and a subdued, thoughtful reading of “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” by Rickie Lee Jones that effectively brings in a New Orleans-funeral-style horn arrangement near the end of the song.
Mr. Rick Sings About God + Booze
One of the Blind Willie Johnson standards not included on God Don’t Never Change was “You’ll Need Someone on Your Bond.” However, Mr. Rick – a.k.a. Rick Zolkower – does a nice, rockabilly-flavored version on Mr. Rick Sings About God + Booze, a mostly upbeat collection of traditional and contemporary Saturday night and Sunday morning songs.
Mr. Rick and his musical friends draw on all manner of roots styles in creating irresistible versions of such God songs as “Hush,” Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “One Kind Favor,” and “I’ll Fly Away,” and such boozers as Eric Von Schmidt’s “Champagne Don’t Drive Me Crazy,” Sleepy John Estes’ “Liquor Store Blues” and Mr. Rick’s own “Don’t Put My Bourbon Down.”
Perhaps my favorite track is “Two Little Fishes,” a biblical story song I first heard sung by Josh White, that takes on a klezmer feel thanks to Jono Lightstone’s clarinet playing.