Not many know the name Blind Willie Johnson. He died sick and penniless in the ruins of his burned down home. Yet his music was sent into outer space by NASA, on a mission to introduce alien civilisations to planet Earth and the human experience.

Interstellar music

Something generous, and uplifting, for all humankind.
Josh Lyman (The West Wing)

There aren’t that many works of art you can say are truly out of this world. These are works of such power and universality that their message transcends categories. They offer a direct line into the soul of the artist, there for anyone willing to listen. No matter our backgrounds or experiences, these works say something that feels true to us all.

blind willie johnson 2 the great everythingIn 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 probe into outer space, aiming to gather data from Jupiter and Saturn. After completing its initial mission in 1980, it began a larger adventure to explore the farthest regions of our solar system. In 2012, it left the outer heliosphere and became the first man-made object to enter interstellar space.

The Voyager 1 is a message in a bottle. In case it’s ever picked up by extraterrestrial lifeforms, it’s packed with data intended to illustrate the diversity of life on Earth: greetings in 55 different languages; mathematical definitions, DNA maps, brainwave recordings; photos of people, animals, landscapes and food; images of art and architecture; various sounds of earth like volcanoes, the wind, a tractor, a kiss; and of course, music.

It’s the story of our life on Earth, for whomever’s out there to hear it.

This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.
President Jimmy Carter

If aliens ever pick up this gift, among the 90 minutes of music on the Voyager Golden Record, they’ll get to hear Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.

Blind Willie Johnson’s Crappy Deal

For someone considered one of the Greatest bluesmen of all time, we don’t know a lot about Blind Willie Johnson. But we do know a few things:

– he was blind;
– he was born in Pendleton, Texas in 1897; and
– he had a pretty shit life.

How shit? Well, for starters, Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t born blind. He used to be just Willie Johnson. Then, the legend goes, his stepmother threw lye in his face to get revenge on his father, who had beaten her for sleeping with another man.

Things never got much better for Willie. He was penniless his entire life. A deeply religious man, he spent his days preaching and singing the blues on street corners, getting beat on by cops and just generally enjoying life as a black man in 1920s Texas.

In 1945 a fire burned his house to the ground. Having nowhere else to go, he stayed there, sleeping on a soaked mattress, wrapped in wet newspapers. He contracted malaria and died there, among the ruins of his home. And yes, still blind.

The Sound Of Hope

blind willie johnson the great everythingBlind Willie Johnson never got his miracle. But he never stopped hoping. You can hear it in his music. With titles like Let Your Light Shine On Me and Praise God I’m Satisfied, every one of his recordings (30 fantastic tracks survive) is a testament to his capacity to never give up hope, no matter the circumstances. His music tells the story of a life lived in perpetual darkness, but also of his refusal to surrender to despair.

Few works express this aspect of the human experience as powerfully as Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, which you can listen to in the video that heads this page. Here’s astronomer Carl Sagan, on why he included it in the Voyager Golden Records:

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.

blind willie johnson 4 the great everythingThis phenomenal track is further proof, if you ever needed it, of music’s ability to exist as its own universal language. In it, barely a word is spoken, yet the raw feeling is communicated with absolute clarity. In the loose twang of its guitar, I get the vast solitude of the Texan plains. In the weary voice, nights spent on rainy street corners, and in that broken rasp the heat of cotton fields in the summer. An eternal longing for something far, far away. And a resolute belief that no matter how bad things can be, someday we’ll all return home.

I don’t know what it must have felt like to be a black street preacher in 1920s Texas, blind and in extreme poverty, but Dark Was The Night is about as close as I’ll ever come.

And after all he went through, how cool is it that he’s on a spaceship now, rocking out with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven? How badass, that he was picked over The Rolling Stones? Or Verdi? Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane? The Beatles?! This is a Rocky-level underdog victory. I guess Willie’s hope got rewarded in the end.

Blind Willie Johnson’s music is a gift. As Josh Lyman put it in the scene from the West Wing that introduced me to him, it’s something generous and uplifting, for all humankind.

And one day, perhaps, for another kind too.

When approaching Blind Willie Johnson, we recommend picking up his complete recordings. Only 30 tracks survive, but each one is a perfect gem of musical delight.

You can buy it on iTunes or Amazon. Spotify users can listen to it here:

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