Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Blind Willie Johnson

  • The Complete Blind Willie Johnson [Columbia/Legacy, 1993] A
  • The Rough Guide to Blind Willie Johnson [World Music Network, 2013] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson [Columbia/Legacy, 1993]
Between 1927 and 1930, in his early thirties and probably his prime, the Texas-based Johnson applied his gravelly voice and dexterous bottleneck to 28 gospel sides. On 19 of these he was accompanied by a female singer, usually his first wife Willie Harris, and in a sense lyrics and melodies are rendered superfluous by the sound of his gruff false bass shadowed and set right by a simpatico soprano: a sane, haunting aural image of suffering and succor that's hard to get too much of. But most of the songs are at least solid in themselves, and refreshingly unfamiliar unless Johnson planted the seed of their renown, as he did with "Motherless Children," "If I Had My Way," "John the Revelator," and the indomitable "Praise God I'm Satisfied." Like most gospel, they value melodic flow and rhythmic momentum more than the Delta blues other Johnsons purveyed. I'm not going to say they rock. But you might. A

The Rough Guide to Blind Willie Johnson [World Music Network, 2013]
All of Johnson's 30 recordings are on Columbia/Legacy's The Complete Blind Willie Johnson double, the sorely missed "Praise God I'm Satisfied" included. This remaster quiets considerable surface noise without much enhancing the size of a voice that's not merely gravelly--more like a bass gargling with actual pebbles. Yet there are reasons for a newcomer to opt for it. Johnson wasn't such a songbag that you need more than the 22 tracks that fit on one CD. Moreover, Rough Guide provides a "Gospel Blues Legends album" bonus disc--a catchall that includes such sinners as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, Skip James, and Barbecue Bob in Sunday-morning mode as well as specialists in God's guitar like the Reverend Gary Davis and the philosophical Washington Phillips, whose magic zither tune "Denomination Blues" provides a doxology: "It's right to stand together, it's wrong to stand apart / 'Cause none's gonna enter but the pure in heart / And that's all, now I tell you that's all / But you better have Jesus now, I tell you that's all." A