Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground

Dark was the night and cold was the ground on which Blind Willie Johnson was laid. Yet after his death, his music would streak to the stars on the Voyager and become part of the “music of the spheres.”

The Voyager Golden Record was sent into space in 1977, carrying greetings in 60 languages, sounds of nature and the music of Beethoven, Bach and Blind Willie Johnson. Carl Sagan likened it to throwing a bottle into the cosmic ocean.

by Terry Messman

“Looked around all day for a job, and I looked almost every place.

It’s hard to come home and find hunger on your children’s face.”

— Juke Boy Bonner

Those heartrending words are not merely song lyrics. They are the real-life testimony of a bluesman — the single father of three young children — who is singing his sorrow about what it feels like to come home from a fruitless search for work and see hunger and deprivation on the faces of the children he loves above all else.

The verses composed by Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner, a gifted poet and blues musician who grew up as a sharecropper in Texas and lived in poverty in Houston for most of his adult life, provide an important clue into the mystery of why so many blues artists sing with such passion about poverty, injustice and homelessness.

Many of the finest blues musicians in history grew up in poverty — and some of them died still poor. Especially in the first few decades of the blues, many great artists made very little money despite their prodigious talent, and were forced to take menial jobs to make ends meet. Yet, that sometimes gave them the insight to create highly meaningful songs about lives broken down by economic hardships, hunger, evictions, and despair.

We can get a glimpse into this hidden dimension of the blues by taking a closer look at the lives and music of two brilliant Texas musicians: Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner and Blind Willie Johnson.

The Ghetto Poet

Although almost forgotten today even in blues circles, Juke Boy Bonner was a remarkable poet and a gifted blues guitarist and singer. He sometimes performed as a one-man band, singing his poetic songs while accompanying himself on guitar, harmonica and percussion.

Some of Bonner’s lyrics are poetry in the true sense. Even when he is near despair, his songs are beautiful and uplifting in the way they speak to the human condition. His song, “It Don’t Take Too Much,” offers a melancholy account of a beautiful loser, a man with a heart full of soul, crushed by the weight of the world.

“It don’t take too much to make you think you were born to lose.

You got to keep on pushing at that mountain, and it never seems to move.”

The two sides of Bonner’s identity as an artist are expressed by the titles of two of his finest records, produced by Chris Strachwitz on Arhoolie. His dark-blue, despairing side is captured by “Life Gave Me a Dirty Deal,” and his identity as a poet from the poor side of town is expressed as “Juke Boy Bonner — Ghetto Poet.”

In “It Don’t Take Too Much,” Bonner reveals how the blues can strike on an economic level — when you can’t find a job — and simultaneously strike at an emotional level — when your wife leaves you. The inequities of a world that’s “doing you wrong” cause the downcast blues by breaking up your home.

“It don’t take too much to make you feel the world is doing you wrong,

Especially when you can’t find no job,

You can’t take care of your wife and your home.”

This poet laureate of the blues, as Brett Bonner (no relation) of Living Blues magazine once described Juke Boy, was also one of the strongest political voices in the blues, speaking out against the economic inequality of U.S. society.

In describing his own tough existence in Houston’s poor neighborhoods, this lone bluesman also became the voice for countless poor people who have found that the “upper-class people” don’t give a single, solitary damn about the survival of the poor.

“It don’t take too much after you gave all that you can give.

Look like upper-class people don’t care how the lower class of people live.”

In Living Blues magazine, Brett Bonner described Juke Boy Bonner as one of the most important poets in the blues.

He wrote, “If you had to choose a poet laureate of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s blues scene, you would be hard pressed to find someone more qualified than Juke Boy Bonner. Bonner’s songs speak beautifully and forcefully of the struggle of African Americans. While many blues songwriters focus attention on themselves and their place in the world, Bonner’s songs display a social consciousness that stretched far beyond himself.”

After Bonner’s marriage at a young age resulted in three children, his wife unexpectedly left him, leaving him solely responsible for his children’s upbringing, a burden made heavier by his own poor health and economic struggles.

In the liner notes to Bonner’s album, “Life Gave Me a Dirty Deal,” Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, explained how the burden was also a blessing. “Perhaps the most unhappy period in Weldon Bonner’s life was his marriage. His wife left him after giving him what he considers the greatest gift in his life, his three children…. Weldon lavished attention, education, responsibilities, and affection on his family. They are all wonderful, lively, intelligent young people.”

Yet his years as a single parent were also full of hardships. Even though Bonner was a genuine poet and a gifted musician, he often was unable to support his family with his music at low-paying blues venues.

In “What Will I Tell the Children,” he sings the hard-working, low-paying, single-parent blues, returning home feeling empty inside after failing to find a job.

“You know it’s so hard when you’re trying to make it,

you’re living from day to day. 

You go down and apply for a job and the people turn you away.

What shall I tell my children, oh Lord, when I get home? Tell them,

‘Maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow all our troubles will be gone.’”

He sings the words “maybe tomorrow” so forlornly, as if he’s grasping at a slender thread of hope. What if tomorrow doesn’t deliver on those hopes?

In another song on “Ghetto Poet,” Bonner sings, “All the lonely days just seem to fade away.” Then the days turn into endless years of broken dreams: “All the lonely years just seem to disappear.”

As we will see, Bonner was not only enduring economic deprivation, loneliness, the pressures of single fatherhood, and disillusionment that his brilliant music never seemed to find a large audience, but was also enduring scary health issues.

Yet when a sensitive poet undergoes that level of suffering, even his despairing words can still be striking and memorable, as in his song, “It’s Enough.”

“Look like I’m waiting for a tomorrow that will never come,

Seems days and days have passed, yet I never see the sun.

It’s enough to make you wish you were never born.

Sometimes I wonder where I get the power and the strength to carry on.”

Juke Boy Bonner's song, "I'm a Bluesman," can be found on this CD, "The Sonet Blues Story: Juke Boy Boonner."

 

“I’m a Bluesman”

“My father passed on when I was two years old,

Didn’t leave me a thing but a whole lot of soul.

You can see I’m a bluesman.”

Those lonely and forsaken lines are from Bonner’s self-revealing song, “I’m a Bluesman.” Being a bluesman was at the very heart of his identity, and this song reveals the major events of his life as reflected in the mirror of the blues.

Weldon Bonner was born on a farm near Bellville, Texas, where his father, Manuel Bonner, was a sharecropper. His very first years seemed to foreshadow all the bad luck that stalked him all his life. He was born in 1932 just as the rural economy was collapsing during the Depression.

He was the youngest of nine children born into a poor family, and just as he sang in “I’m a Bluesman,” his father died when he was only two. Then, Bonner’s mother died when he was only eight.

“My mother passed on when I was just about eight,

I started learning I was growing up in a world of hate.

That made me a bluesman.”

In his 1975 book, The Legacy of the Blues, the pioneering blues author and record producer Samuel Charters described the one-on-one correlation between Juke Boy Bonner’s life and his autobiographical song, “I’m a Bluesman.”

After losing both parents, Bonner went to live with an older sister in Bellville. Instead of going to school, he was working in the Texas cotton fields when he was only 13, just as he sang so movingly.

“I go to work in the fields when I was just thirteen.

Didn’t get a chance to know what education means.”

In 1963, at the age of 30, Bonner was hospitalized for chronic ulcers and 45 percent of his stomach was removed. During his long recovery, he began writing poetry and had countless poems published in Forward Times, the African-American newspaper of Houston.

Bonner turned many of these poems into beautiful songs and became a fine singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. His music was championed, first by Mike Leadbitter, a leading blues researcher and writer for Blues Unlimited in England, and later by Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records in El Cerrito, who released his finest records.

Yet for all the brilliance of his artistry, Juke Boy Bonner would never become a star.

At the end of “I’m a Bluesman,” Bonner sings the desolate and downhearted words that, in my mind, make him one of the most important and prophetic voices of the homeless condition in America. All the hard knocks he endured gave him the knowledge and sensitivity to capture the frightening insecurity of life on the streets.

“When at night you don’t know where you’re going to sleep,

or where you’ll get your next meal to eat

That makes you a bluesman, a bluesman.

I want the world to know how come I’m a bluesman.”

In “I’m in the Big City,” Bonner writes of his disillusionment in moving from the hard, bare existence of a sharecropper’s life on a Texas cotton farm to Houston, only to find that poverty had followed him to the big city. “Here I am in the big city and I’m just about to starve to death.”

“I’m a Bluesman” appeared on “The Sonet Blues Story: Juke Boy Bonner,” and his other songs appeared on “Life Gave Me a Dirty Deal” and “Ghetto Poet.” Strachwitz produced all these intensely moving records by a talented musician and poet, and Charter was the creative force behind the Sonet Blues series.

Without his work being championed by Chris Strachwitz, Samuel Charter and Mike Leadbitter, Juke Boy Bonner might have lived and died almost completely unknown.

A Hero of the Blues

Although Bonner never became a big star, he was a voice of his people, a wonderful poet and a courageous bluesman who kept playing even after half of his stomach was removed.

He gave concerts and performed at blues festivals all over the country and traveled to Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. But somehow, he never had a breakthrough moment in his career.

The life-stories of great artists in America are supposed to follow a rags-to-riches story arc. When a sensitive young man is born into an impoverished family of sharecroppers on a Texas farm just as the Depression ruins the economy, and then loses both parents, we are primed to expect that his years of hard work and brilliant artistry will be rewarded someday.

Yet, if the first chapters of Bonner’s life were harsh and cruel, the last chapter was outright heartbreaking.

Even though he had written and published hundreds of poems, and had recorded blues albums of unquestionable worth and beauty, in Bonner’s last years he held down “a dreadful minimum wage job” in Houston, as Strachwitz explained in the notes to “Life Gave Me a Dirty Deal.”

“The last time I visited Juke Boy in Houston,” Strachwitz wrote, “he was working at a chicken processing plant, depressing work for anyone but especially demoralizing for a sensitive poet like Weldon Bonner.” Strachwitz later wrote that he would never forget the bad shape Juke Boy was in while working that job.

Then, when he was only 46 years old, Bonner died on June 28, 1978, in “the small rented room where he lived” in Houston. The last verses of Bonner’s overpowering song, “It Don’t Take Too Much” express the essential truth of this poet’s lifelong struggle with the blues.

“It don’t take too much to make you think you was born to lose

That’s why I lay down worrying and I wake up with the blues.”

 

This beautiful portrait of Blind Willie Johnson by renowned artist R. Crumb was published in "R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country," along with dozens of other iconic portraits. Crumb’s portraits of blues musicians also appear on “Heroes of the Blues” T-shirts.

 

Despite his lack of public recognition, Juke Boy Bonner lived and died a great poet — and a hero of the blues. As I write these words, I realize I am wearing a T-shirt with an iconic portrait of Blind Willie Johnson by the artist R. Crumb and the blazing inscription: “Heroes of the Blues.”

For one forlorn moment, I find myself wishing that Juke Boy Bonner had also been consecrated as a hero of the blues, and that during his lifetime he had enjoyed some of the success lavished on so many lesser musicians.

From past experience, I know where these wishes will soon lead. I’ll begin wishing for a world where the genuine blues artists like Juke Boy Bonner and Blind Willie Johnson are far more celebrated than the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and all the others who have grown rich while exploiting the blues. As long as I’m wishing for the impossible, why not wish for eyesight for the blind? In fact, why not wish for eyesight for Blind Willie Johnson?

Even though justice is too often delayed, it may still show up on some unexpected day. After all, one of the greatest musicians in our nation’s history, Blind Willie Johnson, spent the last 17 years of his life in nearly total obscurity, playing his breathtaking music for strangers on small-town street corners, and then died a lonely death. Yet now, his music sails among the stars.

Blind Willie Johnson and the Music of the Spheres

In the opening frames of “The Soul of a Man,” a film by director Wim Wenders in the film series “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues,” NASA technicians are seen loading a golden record on board the Voyager as it is about to blast off to explore the outer reaches of our solar system and then continue on into deep space.

The Voyager Golden Record carried the “Sounds of Earth” — the diverse languages, music and natural sounds of surf, thunder, birds and whales. Carl Sagan likened it to launching a message in a bottle into the “cosmic ocean.” The Voyager Golden Record selected the music of Bach, Beethoven and Blind Willie Johnson to carry on this voyage into the solar system, past Pluto and to the stars beyond.

It is amazing to contemplate this starry destiny for Blind Willie’s music, since during his life he seemed the most earthbound of men. He was born into poverty in Texas, blinded as a very young child, and later died in obscurity.

Johnson lost his mother at an early age. He would later sing a deeply moving rendition of “Motherless children have a hard time when the mother is gone.” During his youth, Willie Johnson walked down many lonely roads in darkness. He would die in much the same way, after sleeping on a soaked mattress when his house burned down.

Yet Johnson is now immortalized as one of the most brilliant slide guitarists in the history of gospel and blues music, and his haunting rendition of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is now soaring into space. His music truly has become part of the “music of the spheres.”

Many musicians win gold records for reaching one million dollars in sales (or by later standards, 500,000 units). Blind Willie Johnson’s music is on the ultimate gold record, shining among the stars.

Johnson was a stunning original. Samuel Charters wrote that no one during his time sounded like Blind Willie Johnson as a singer or guitarist. But Johnson would soon influence everyone else. Musicians to this day are still devoting years of their lives in an attempt to figure out his incredibly beautiful and complex slide guitar playing.

In the liner notes to “The Complete Blind Willie Johnson” on Columbia, Charters wrote: “He was one of the most brilliant slide guitarists who ever recorded, and he used the upper strings for haunting melodic phrases that finished the lines he was singing in the text.”

Sandblasted Vocal Cords

Blind Willie Johnson didn’t sing the blues, however. Every song he recorded between the years of 1927 to 1930 was a gospel song, yet his slide guitar playing sounded like the very essence of the blues, and he sang loud enough to wake the dead in a rasping growl that sounded like his vocal cords had been sandblasted.

His beautifully expressive, yet deep and raw vocals remade gospel music so it sounded like the primal blues of the Mississippi Delta, as if the harsh, gravel-voiced singing of Son House had mingled with the intense, passionate vocals of Howlin’ Wolf. Yet Blind Willie Johnson grew up in rural Texas, not Mississippi, and his music preceded most of the blues artists. Where did it come from?

Many of the finest guitarists in the world are in awe of Blind Willie Johnson. Some have spent half their lives trying to replicate what he could do on a slide guitar. How did a blind young man who played in small towns in an isolated area of rural Texas become one of the most masterful guitarists of all?

Ry Cooder, a virtuoso slide guitarist himself, described what Blind Willie Johnson’s playing meant to him. “Of course, I’ve tried all my life — worked very hard and every day of my life, practically — to play in that style. He’s so good. I mean, he’s just so good! Beyond a guitar player. I think the guy is one of these interplanetary world musicians.”

He’s exactly right about the “interplanetary” part. Blind Willie Johnson’s performance of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” an instrumental version of a gospel song about the crucifixion of Jesus, was sent into space on the Voyager as “the human expression of loneliness.” The song’s full title is, “Dark was the night and cold was the ground, on which the Lord was laid.”

Samuel Charters wrote that Blind Willie Johnson had created a “shattering mood” with this song. “What Willie did in the studio was to create this mood, this haunted response to Christ’s crucifixion,” Charters wrote, adding that Johnson created an “achingly” expressive melody with just his slide guitar. Instead of singing the words of the hymn, Johnson cast aside the lyrics and went for pure emotion, humming along wordlessly in a meditative mood.

“It was a moment that was as moving as it was unforgettable,” Charters wrote. “It was the only piece he played like this, and nothing else similar to it was ever recorded. It remains one of the unique masterpieces of American music.”

Ry Cooder said that Johnson’s performance was “the most transcendent piece in all American music.”

Blind Willie Johnson’s entire life prepared him to have the emotional depth and sensitivity to create such a deeply felt response to the crucifixion of a Biblical figure who was born homeless.

Motherless Children Have a Hard Time

Johnson’s mother died when he was an infant. One of his most moving songs was sung with all the depth and heartache that a motherless son could find deep within himself. It is now a classic of American music.

His singing sends chills through my soul. It is a darkly unsettling experience, yet his otherworldly voice offers pure compassion to the motherless and fatherless children of the world. I lost my own father too early. And I love this song.

Children who have lost their parents at a very young age may be lost on some deep level for a very long time. And they may become lost in another sense as well — they may become homeless or spend their childhood days in poverty.

Every time I hear Blind Willie Johnson sing the last verse of this song, images arise of all the motherless and fatherless children who are homeless in modern America, and all the throwaway kids who are released from the foster care system with nowhere to go.

The most haunting image that arises is a picture of Willie Johnson himself, sightless and motherless, trying to make his way in the world by singing these words on street corners to unseen strangers.

“Motherless children have a hard time when mother is dead, Lord.

Motherless children have a hard time — mother’s dead.

They don’t have anywhere to go, wandering around from door to door.

Have a hard time.”

His father sent this sightless, motherless youth out with a tin cup to sing on street corners in small towns in Texas. Johnson recorded for only three years, from 1927 to 1930, yet during that time he is said to have outsold Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues.

The Homeless Stranger

He sang hymns and gospel songs, yet as Charter wrote, these songs “have been so completely changed in his hands that they become his own personal expression, building on the great Biblical figures.” Above all, Charters added, his songs reflected “the loneliness of the motherless child or the homeless stranger.”

One of my favorite songs of all expresses the lonely life of the homeless stranger. Willie Johnson walked in darkness all his life and he must have known many lonesome days when all he met were strangers who looked upon him as a blind beggar, a homeless stranger. They had no way of knowing that they were meeting one of the most remarkable musicians in American history.

But whether we have encountered a homeless stranger, or a world-class musician, Johnson’s song, “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” is the voice of the conscience.

“Well, all of us down here are strangers, none of us have no home,

Don’t never hurt, oh, your brother and cause him to live alone.

Everybody ought to treat a stranger right long ways from home.”

His song goes beyond a simple appeal for compassion. With his spiritual vision, he reminds us that another Stranger once was born homeless, because there was no room at the inn.

“Well, Christ came down a stranger. He didn’t have no home,

Well, he was cradled in a manger and oxen kept him warm.”

This song is a reminder to a nation which just officially reported a record number of more than one million homeless children enrolled in the public schools that the lives of all of those homeless strangers are sacred. Every single one.

Dark Was the Night

Even though Blind Willie Johnson’s records had been selling well, and would soon become deeply influential to other musicians, the Depression ended the recording careers of many great blues artists, including Blind Willie. In 1930, Johnson recorded his last song. Yet, he kept playing music on the streets and in church gatherings in Beaumont, Texas, all through the 1930s and up until his death on September 18, 1945.

After his death, his music would streak on its heroic journey towards the stars in deep space. But during his life, this masterful musician suffered the crucifixion of poverty. It must be said: Dark was the night and cold was the ground on which Blind Willie Johnson was laid.

In August 1945, the shack where he lived with his wife Angeline burned down. With nowhere else to go, they lived in the fire-gutted ruins of their home and slept on wet newspapers on top of their soaked mattress. Johnson soon died of pneumonia or, alternately, malarial fever.

There are so many haunting deaths among homeless people on the streets, premature deaths caused by untreated illnesses among extremely poor people with inadequate medical care. And there are so many haunting deaths in the blues.

One immediately thinks of the terrible death of Robert Johnson, slowly and torturously dying in 1938 after being poisoned, and Charley Patton dying on a Mississippi plantation shortly after singing “Oh Death” at his last recording session for Vocalion in 1934.

Blind Lemon Jefferson died alone in a snowstorm on a wintry night in Chicago in December 1929, and Bessie Smith died in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1937 following a deadly car accident while traveling on Highway 61 from Memphis into Clarksdale. Elmore James died from a massive heart attack in 1963 when he was only 45 and should have had many more years to play his brilliant slide guitar.

Sonny Boy (John Lee) Williamson I, a fine singer and groundbreaking blues harpist, was murdered at the age of 34 during a robbery in Chicago in 1948. His last words reportedly were, “Lord, have mercy.” Another great vocalist and, in many people’s view, the most brilliant musician ever to play the blues harmonica, Little Walter, died at the age of 37 in 1968 as a result of injuries suffered during a fight in Chicago.

Sonny Boy Williamson II died in 1965, a short time after playing in a juke joint with Robbie Robertson and the Hawks (later of The Band). During the set, Williamson was constantly spitting what Robertson thought was tobacco juice into a can, until he finally realized that Sonny Boy actually had been spitting his blood into the can all night, then returning to play harmonica.

Even in light of all these tragic deaths, there is something in the brilliant artistry and the forsaken death of Blind Willie Johnson that is deeply touching. He lived and died a genuine, gospel-drenched hero of the blues — not just when he was recording his immortal music, but in my mind, maybe even more during the 15 years from 1930 to 1945 when the sightless street musician continued to play to small numbers of strangers on obscure street corners.

How We Treat the Stranger

In remembering his death, an unwelcome thought arises: This is how we treat the homeless stranger. We have created a society where an unknown blind man is turned away from a hospital and dies in a fire-gutted home, not just in Johnson’s era in rural Texas, but here and now, and in every state of the union.

Even today, we scarcely notice when a slum hotel in the inner city burns to the ground, or when homeless people die years before their time due to untreated illnesses and exposure, or that the safety net has been shredded so blind and disabled people are less able to survive.

Johnson sang, “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” to warn us that the messiah may appear in the anonymous guise of a nameless, faceless stranger, and that the life of each unsheltered, needy stranger has sacred worth.

Then, he demonstrated the full significance of those lyrics by dying the unnoticed death of the unknown stranger, even though, in this case, he was one of the finest musicians of all time.

T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Rock,” echoes with the same message about the stranger.

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?

Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”

What will you answer? “We all dwell together

To make money from each other?” or “This is a community?”

On his recording of “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” Blind Willie Johnson asked us that same question, a question that will never go away.

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