An indescribably small percentage of musicians can say that their music is etched into a solid gold record that’s hurtling through interstellar space at 39,600 miles per hour towards the star, Gliese 445, some 17.6 light years away from earth.
Blind Willie Johnson is one of those musicians.
The Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, carries two golden records that contain a variety of images and sounds intended to describe the diversity of life and culture on Earth to any extraterrestrial beings who are curious and also happen to own a record player.
Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” is the penultimate track on the record, followed by Beethoven’s Op. 130 Cavatina for String Quartet. The blind musician and the deaf, traveling together farther than any other manmade object in history. It’s poetic, really.
Johnson, sadly, will never know that one of the 29 songs that he recorded over his short and troubled life was awarded the honor of representing the entire human race. Like many geniuses it seems, his work wasn’t recognized until after his life was over. And from the little we know, he didn’t have a particularly happy life. He was blinded and motherless by age seven, homeless by a house fire in his late 40s, ill with malarial fever shortly thereafter, and very poor throughout.
In short, Blind Willie Johnson had reason to play the blues. And boy could he play.
So maybe now you can have some idea of how incredibly gutsy it was to name a new album after his most famous song, some 30 years later. It’s kind of like naming your painting Mona Lisa Number 2. Optimistic.
The album, Dark Was the Night, was released by Red Hot as a charity compilation in 2007 to raise awareness about and fight HIV/AIDS. While charity albums always have the best motivations and the most admirable use of profits, the quality of music is often sadly…lacking.
This one, however, is different
Produced by Red Hot as well as Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner of the band, The National, Dark Was The Night features both original music and thoughtful covers by an impressive lineup of indie musicians: Bon Iver, Yeasayer, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, and of course The National, to name a few. Hipster paradise.
I stumbled across the album when I was 17 at my local public library, which is where I spent a lot of my free time, because I was super cool.
A few highlights:
Sufjan Steven’s cover of “You Are The Blood” still gives me chills. It furiously bucks the norm of the time-tested 4-minute verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, (etc.) structure of most songs. For example, there’s a several minute-long classical piano solo sandwiched between sections of distorted vocals, a full horn section, and copious synths. An awesome classical piano solo I might mention.
My Brightest Diamond’s performance of Nina Simone’s classic, “Feeling Good” also resonates, slowed down, with a slightly eerie twist.
And I think I have to mention Kronos Quartet’s bold transformation of Blind Willie Johnson’s famous title track into a string quartet piece. I admire the creativity, but it’s really hard (impossible?) to come anywhere near the poignancy of the original.
The record was a huge success, raising some $1.6 million for HIV/AIDS charities. I realize that I made no contribution to this whatsoever by getting the album from the library…
But I made up for it when I realized, disgruntled, that iTunes had somehow deleted it from my library and I went back and bought it. With real money and all. I hope you do the same.
This album contains excellent music, maybe not worth launching off the planet, but definitely worth a listen.
Update: Red Hot just released a new compilation album “Day of the Dead” http://redhot.org/project/day-of-the-dead/ that includes many Grateful Dead covers. Check it out.