There is a moment in every creative person’s life where their work touches enough people to the point that it can outlast even its creator. People judge a creative lifestyle – singing, writing, painting, designing, coding, etc. – through the lens of fame and fortune as though these are the only defining elements that define success. But these same people aren’t visionaries, they pursue these very things, though, with many failing to explore life or the world, instead focusing solely on the acquisition of wealth and the label of success. They aren’t the dreamers or the misfits, and they create no art.
The dreamers and misfits power the world. They are the explorers of old, transversing unknown oceans and worlds to reach fruition of an idea that could kill their career or themselves.
One such misfit, a man called Blind Willie Johnson, broke the bonds of earth and beyond with music that reaches the heart and serves as a testament to what passion can deliver in harsh times and environments.
Born in 1897 near Brenham, Texas, a small town located about halfway between Austin and Houston, not a lot is known about Willie Johnson’s life. The stories and claims of his marriages cannot be completely proven, as no marriage certificates have been found, and until his death certificate was discovered, the place of his birth was thought to be in Temple, Texas.
The story of how he lost his sight is also just another story, beginning with a tale his supposed first wife, Angeline, told to Sam Charters, an American music historian. It takes place when Blind Willie is only 7 and is the result of a jealous rage on that of his stepmother’s rage after his father beat her for catching her going out with another man.
Johnson’s adult life flows as randomly as that of his birthplace and childhood trauma. One such tale about an arrest in New Orleans is told in a dramatic fashion according to one tradition but is supposedly discounted by music historian Sam Charters. The story begins with Blind Willie playing a rendition of, ‘If I’d Had My Way I’d Tear This Building Down,’ a song about Sampson and Delilah. The robust performance nearly caused a riot outside of a New Orleans courthouse, leading to Johnson’s arrest. The supposed real story as told by Sam Charters, though, is a much simpler, much more boring tale and tells of Johnson being arrested outside of the Customs House for singing for tips by a police offer who mistook the meaning for the song as incitement.
Across five separate sessions at Columbia Records from 1927 to 1930, Blind Willie Johnson recorded 30 commercial studio record sides. Despite these recordings, Blind Willie died poor and all but forgotten, but his dreams of his music impacting the world did not die with him. Though his he’s dead, his voice is now carrying his work to the stars. Johnson’s song, Dark Was The Night, was included on the Voyager Golden Record and mounted on the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
A simple plaque greets the distant void aboard Voyager 1, saying, “This is a present from a small and 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.” -U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Blind Willie Johnson’s work is included in this present, from musical greats across many cultures, such as Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, to greetings in many different languages, and to images and sounds from life on Earth.
On September 12, 2013, nearly 68 years after his death, Voyager 1, the farthest man-made object from Earth, left the solar system. Blind Willie Johnson’s dream never died with him. His voice still lives beyond the solar system.