I find him difficult to listen to. There's his buzzy, bullfrog vocals, for one thing. The gal singing behind him keens declaratively, making the effect doubly jarring. His slide guitar technique is curious, but nothing so far out of the ordinary as to be remarkable. He favors the Key of C. And he sings about the same thing, over and over and over -- a troubled existence beneath the gaze of God.
But name me one other hard-scrabble gospel singer who's had anywhere close to Johnson's outsize influence on the American songbook. Not in churches, mind you -- you'll hear him on street corners, in pubs, folk- and blues-festivals, or those rare occasions when Led Zeppelin regathers at an international venue, but never in a carpeted sanctuary (and if your church is in the habit of singing Blind Willie Johnson songs, I definitely will not be attending).
Anyway, here we are now with Alligator Records' God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson as rendered by a bunch of just-this-side-of-A-list artists I've heard and even seen perform over the years. And I'm hooked.
|Thank you, Kickstarter|
The performers all catch what's catchy in Johnson's material. I enjoy the whole stew, but as with any compilation, I prefer some contributions over others. No need to go into specifics, except to say when I first heard "Jesus Is Comin' Soon" I got scared. Johnson's own voice supplies the chorus, echoing back from his troubled time to ours -- a bold and super-canny ploy, to say the least, on the part of a band of locals who call themselves Cowboy Junkies.
Check it for yourself at Alligator Records' site. The New Yorker sent Elon Green to quiz the performers (particularly Sinéad O'Connor) on their aesthetic choices. And this is as good a time as any to add my voice to the growing chorus of pleased beholders: the suddenly-prolific Lucinda Williams is ripping through one hell of a second act, boy oh boy.