SINGLE: Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground / It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine
ARTIST: Blind Willie Johnson
RYM RANK: #218
RYM RATING: 4.05/5 (average of 511 ratings)
“Dark was the night and cold was the ground
On which the Lord was laid;
The sweat like drops of blood run down;
In agony he prayed”
– “Dark Was the Night”, Thomas Haweis
The opening words of Haweis’ limerick, dated all the way back to 1792, allude to the moment when Jesus Christ lay in the Garden of Gethsemane in solitude and sorrow, pleading to God to pardon him of his inevitable fate; a plea that would go unheard as Jesus would later be arrested by the Romans that very night. The hymn depicts one of the more humanizing moments of the life of Christ, where he dreaded the inevitably of death and begged – as most do – for a prolonged stay on Earth amidst the comfort of his friends and family.
Gospel music, particularly in the context of African-American culture, is stereotypically associated with joyousness and good hope and will towards fellow man. However, as exemplified by Christ’s final prayer in Gethsemane, the Bible is hardly a happy tale; it’s instead a story that reeks of oppression, despair, and – ultimately – death. And certainly, the history of enslavement and persecution that has forever plagued Black America is reflective of this kind of grimness which is partly why Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” – itself an allusion to Haweis’ hymn – rivals “Strange Fruit” as being the most emblematic testament of the worst of the Black American experience.
Blind Willie Johnson was certainly a man whose life was rife with unhappiness. Said to have been violently blinded by his step-mother as a child, Willie had spent the near entirety of his life alone in darkness. Though he was a devout Christian, having written most his songs in the vein of gospel and having spent his later life as the reverend of a small town, “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” was indicative of a great sadness and fear; of the dread of having your life end like Christ’s, where you’re left die without justice and without the full satisfactions of the human experience.
For this subliminal content alone, “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” is perhaps the purest example of blues ever recorded. The song’s pureness of heart is only rivaled in bareness by the fabric of its composition, whereby the recording consists of little more than a lonely wandering guitar riff and Willie’s wordless, soul-crushing humming. The audio quality of this single is aged but that omniscient hiss which clouds over Willie’s playing shrouds the song like heavy rain, only amplifying the melancholy of his soft cry for help.
Indeed, it’s possible that the wrinkles and emptiness of “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” is what embeds the track with its timeless essence. Its cross-generational admiration is strong enough for the song to have titularly inspired the remarkable 2008 compilation, Dark Was the Night, which features a faithful cover of the track as performed by the Kronos Quartet. The compilation was a means for the Red Hot Organization to raise money for AIDS research and while the comp offers plenty of optimism to enjoy, the stench of death pervades throughout its runtime. For a compilation that possesses such an arching sense of gloom, there is no doubt that Willie (himself the fatal victim of a sexually transmitted disease, in his case syphilis) would be the ideal American artist to whom to pay tribute to and although his discography is rich with one brilliant single after another, there is no song of Willie’s catalogue more legendary or haunting than “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground”.
This singles list, I must say, is off to an amazing start.
“It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is a stellar follow-up the single’s much better known first track. With this flipside, Willie moves on from the ghostly, nearly formless character of “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” and instead dishes out a toe-tapping, boisterous slice of classic Southern blues. Here, Willie has actual lyrics to sing; he thus unleashes his husky voice in all its fury and boy, what a tremendous voice he has. His deep, wavering growl speaks exudes anger as he belts out some deeply self-defeating and judgmental words that alternative between allusions to subservience to the spirit of his parents and subservience to the spirit of God. His singing is lovely but perhaps most notable is his incredibly guitar-playing; his tempo is erratic but his plucking effortlessly alternatives between the lead and rhythm roles in a fashion that eerily predates Jimi Hendrix’s similar craft by nearly four decades. Willie’s clear influence – whether direct or indirect – on Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf, and just about every other guitar-playing master to come is unmistakable and “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is hard-hitting, entertaining testament to the brilliance of his technique and his songwriting.