Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"John The Revelator" - Blind Willie Johnson


Set Two: Social Music; Disc Two; Track Eleven: "John The Revelator" performed by Blind Willie Johnson. "Vocal duet with two guitars." Recorded in Atlanta on April 20, 1930. Original issue Columbia 14530D (W150316).

Blind Willie Johnson was born on January 27, 1897 near Brenham, Texas. At an early age, he expressed a desire to be a preacher and built himself a guitar out of a cigar box. Born sighted, Johnson was blinded at some point before the age of eight. One story, told by Johnson's second wife, was when Johnson was seven, his stepmother threw lye in his face in retaliation for a beating she had suffered at the hands of his father.

Reportedly, Johnson's father would leave him on street corners where he sang for tips. Johnson's powerful voice and skill on the guitar allowed him to sing and preach for most of his adult life. Between 1927 and 1930, Johnson recorded thirty songs for Columbia Records, many of which were performed with his first wife, Willie B. Harris. "John The Revelator" was recorded on April 20, 1930, Johnson's last recording session.

Johnson made little money as a performer, and remained poor until the end of his life. He sang and preached on the streets of Beaumont, Texas. In 1945, his house burned down. Not having anyplace else to live, Johnson slept in the ruins, eventually contracting malaria. He died on September 18, 1945. Reportedly, Johnson's second wife, Angeline, tried to take him to the hospital, but they were turned away. Some accounts of the story have Johnson refused on the grounds of his race, while others claim that his blindness was the reason.

Johnson's music has been incredibly influential. His songs have been recorded by Son House, Reverend Gary Davis, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Fairport Convention, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Nick Cave, R.E.M. and the White Stripes. Johnson's 1927 recording "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" was included on the Voyager "Golden Record", which was sent into space with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, making Johnson the only artist on the Anthology whose music will likely outlast the existence of the planet. "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" is also employed as the theme music on the podcast of Where Dead Voices Gather.

"John The Revelator" is a traditional "call and response" Gospel song. On Johnson's recording, Johnson sings the "call" ("Who's that writin'?", and Willie Harris sings the "response" ("John the Revelator").

Well, who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
Who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
Who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
A book of the seven seals.

Tell me, what's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
What's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
What's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
A book of the seven seals.

Well ooh ooh why me, thousands cried holy,
Bound for some, Son of our God.
Daughter of Zion, Judah the Lion,
He redeem us and bought us with His blood.

Tell me, who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
Who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
Who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
A book of the seven seals.

Well, what's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
What's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
What's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
A book of the seven seals.

Ah, John the Revelator, great advocator.
Get's 'em on the battle of Zion.
Lord, tellin' the story, risin' in glory,
Cried, "Lord, don't you love me some I?"

Tell me, who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
Who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
Who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
A book of the seven seals.

Well, what's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
What's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
What's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
A book of the seven seals.

Well, Moses to Moses, watchin' the flock,
Saw the bush, well he had to stop.
God told Moses, "Pull off your shoes.
Out of the flock, well you I choose."

Tell me, who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
Who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
Who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
A book of the seven seals.

Well, what's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
What's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
What's John writin'? 'Bout the Revelator.
A book of the seven seals.

Well ooh ooh why me, thousands cried holy,
Bound for some, Son of our God.
Daughter of Zion, Judah the Lion,
He redeem us and bought us with His blood.

Tell me, who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
Who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
Who's that writin'? John the Revelator.
A book of the seven seals.


"John The Revelator" refers to John of Patmos, the reputed author of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. The Book is written to the seven Christian churches of Asia (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea) describing two visions John had experienced that described the coming return of Christ and the Final Judgment of mankind. John of Patmos is also traditionally held to be the Apostle John and the author of the Fourth Gospel, although some biblical scholars now believe these to be separate individuals.

Johnson's recording is easily among the most powerful on this volume of the Anthology, simply because of the sheer force of the performance and the unearthly quality of Johnson's voice. Willie Harris's voice, by contrast, sounds tiny. She is literally overwhelmed by her husband. Although Johnson was a celebrated slide-guitarist, he does not employ the technique on this recording.

Blind Willie Johnson's recording of "John The Revelator" was made on April 20, 1930, exactly 80 years to the day before this post was written.

"John The Revelator" has received numerous covers over the years, among the artists who have recorded versions of "John The Revelator" are The Blues Brothers, The Golden Gate Quartet, Beck, Billy Childish, John Mellencamp, Nick Cave, Gov't Mule, Curtis Stigers, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Trey Anastasio, R.E.M., Lee Roy Parnell, Frank Black, Hugo Race, Ian Siegal, A. A. Bondy, and Phil Keaggy.

One reason that Smith might have chosen to place "John The Revelator" in this particular sequence is twofold: Both "Dry Bones" and "John The Revelator" make mention of the same story about Moses. In "Dry Bones," Moses is warned that he is "treading holy ground," while in "John The Revelator," Moses is told to "take off [his] shoes." It is also significant that the next selection also deals with Moses.

Another reason for this song's placement might be for the contrast between Bascomb Lamar Lunsford's wry performance and Johnson's ferocity.

This is the third of four "song-sermons" in a row.

The Shameless Plug Department: The fifth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all jazz episode featuring early jazz recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and a whole lot more! Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

The Shameless Plug for Someone Else Department: If you look at the list of blogs over on the right side of the screen, you'll see one called Excavated Shellac. It's a favorite of mine and well worth checking out. Jonathan Ward, the author of Excavated Shellac, has recently put together an amazing collection released on Dust-to-Digital's vinyl-only imprint Parlortone titled Excavated Shellac: Strings. It is a collection of fourteen recordings, all originally released on 78, from all around the world. There are tracks from Armenia, India, Bolivia, Congo, Vietnam, Georgia, and Iran, and that's just side one! Each cut features a different string instrument such as the guitar, the oud, the tar, the Paraguyan harp, the hardanger, and others. This is the best album I've heard yet in 2010 and is sure to be included in my top ten for the year. If you own a turntable, order yours today. You won't be sorry.

This is Nick Cave's performance of "John The Revelator" from The Harry Smith Project.



Here's the great Son House performing an a capella version of "John The Revelator."



Here's the White Strips (one of my favorite bands) performing "Cannon," which incorporates "John The Revelator."



Download and listen to Blind Willie Johnson - "John The Revelator"

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