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God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson
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Paste Magazine - 90 Based on rating 9.0/10
We got the blues all wrong. We trod all over what it was about. We took it and made it whatever we wanted it to be, rendering its real joys hopelessly obscure. The rockers came in and made the bluesman a tough-as-nails whiskey-slugging mystic. The folkies came in and made the bluesman a patronizing ….
God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson almost didn't happen. Though producer Jeffrey Gaskill assembled the award-winning collection You Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan in 2002, the narrowing focus of the recording industry made it necessary to undertake a Kickstarter campaign for this set to become reality. (The crown jewels for top contributors were ten cigar box guitars made from three boards acquired from one of Johnson's residences.) Gaskill first heard Johnson's haunting, knife-like slide guitar and moaning gospel-blues in 2003, then made two investigative trips to Texas to learn more.
Gospel blues singer Blind Willie Johnson only recorded 30 songs during his lifetime, but each one was so powerful that you’ve probably heard most of them covered by someone else and took them as originals. Religious singers such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Ashely Cleveland, folkies such as Gillian Welch and Bob Dylan, rockers such as Led Zeppelin and Nick Cave, country stars such as Willie Nelson and the Levon Helm Band, blues stylists such as Eric Clapton and Rory Block, and a host of idiosyncratic artists such as the Incredible String Band, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Captain Beefheart, Andrew Bird, and John Fahey have all taken on Johnson’s repertoire. Now you can add nine more musicians to the list.
What's the point of a tribute album? Is it to show how the influence of an icon has spread, seeping into and informing far-flung styles that then sprawl from the center like branches of a healthy family tree? Is it to use the star power of gathered singers and bands to raise the reputation of some underserved idol, giving a second chance to the perpetually overlooked? Or, more cynically, is it a label-based attempt to package together a potpourri of disparate artists and capitalize on their disconnected fanbases and that of the tribute subject? God Don’t Never Change, an 11-song ode to the great blues howler and gospel progenitor Blind Willie Johnson, feels a little like all of those at once. Produced by tribute-compilation veteran Jeffrey Gaskill, powered by an ambitious crowdfunding campaign, and issued by roots imprint Alligator Records, God Don’t Never Change attempts to grapple with Johnson’s impact on popular artists and genre purists alike. Crossover giants such as Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, and Sinéad O’Connor share the tracklist with gospel- and blues-based acts, from the institutional Blind Boys of Alabama to North Mississippi Allstar leader Luther Dickinson.
When Willie Johnson was 7 years old, his stepmother, angered at being beaten by his father, took her revenge by splashing the boy’s face with a pan of lye. But losing his eyesight did not slow Willie Johnson down. He became a fire-and-brimstone preacher, spending his life singing the blues and spreading the good word on the streets of several towns in Texas.
Blind Willie Johnson left behind a mere 30 songs and a towering legacy that empowered disciples ranging from Pops Staples and Bob Dylan to Led Zeppelin and Ry Cooder. Yet he is an often overlooked figure who merged gospel and blues into music of transcendent depth and feeling. He died in 1945, 15 years after his final recording. Homeless after a fire destroyed his house in southeast Texas, Johnson came down with an illness (variously described as malaria or pneumonia), only to be refused admission to a hospital on account of his blindness (or, more likely, his skin color).