About a month ago I treated myself to a new CD box set. I had heard from various sources that it was good, and when I saw it for myself in a store I decided to have a bit of an impulsive splurge. It is called American Epic, the companion music to the PBS series of the same name. At the time I had not seen the series but I quickly put that to right along with diving into the 5 disc set. Altogether the project is a true labor of love exploring the earliest days of recording various roots music from across the American diaspora in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Musically it covers a lot of ground-Delta Blues, old-time fiddle music, Cajun, Native American, jug bands, Hawaiian, Gospel and Latin. Collectively I heard songs I knew from established singers and players such as The Carter Family, Robert Johnson, Lydia Mendoza, Lead Belly and Jimmie Rodgers. There are also some surprises-little snippets or lyrics of songs that I have known for years, but never knew the source of. Others I knew more by name as being seminal figures but was unfamiliar with the music.
Along with those key figures, American Epic covered some unsung people across the spectrum of recorded American music such as Charley Patton, Dick Justice, Geeshie Wiley, Elder J.E. Burch, and many more. The producers of the series utilized new restoration techniques to really bring a new dynamic to the music recorded in some cases nearly 100 years ago. It is a staggering realization knowing that we have reached a point in history where the recorded music you hear so easily streaming on your phone or the radio had its origins in these early recordings. Without these pioneers of recording technology crossing the country bringing back these gems, popular music in America may have never gone past Tin Pan Alley and the popular tunes of the day. As the show points out, once the radio became popular and affordable, the early markets for records were drying up. The labels took this as a chance to expand their musical offerings to wider audiences.
These past few weeks I have been listening to all of the music, mesmerized by the diversity of sounds. I have also been reading along with the book, looking at the photos and reading the lyrics and words of so many long ago and in many cases forgotten singers and musicians. Beyond that I could hear the influence many of these unsung singers had on names much more well known. I heard the cold lonesome whippoorwill of Hank Williams in the voice of Emmett Miller. I heard the testament of every gospel singer I have ever listened to in the songs of Reverend F.W. McGee. I hear the Rolling Stones attitude in the growls of Howlin’ Wolf.
But before I go on describing American Epic in more detail, I’m going to stop myself. The series is currently streaming on Amazon for you to watch and enjoy yourself. I’m also stopping myself because I am thinking of spending some time making it a semi-regular feature here on Soundtrack Of A Photograph. I have learned my lesson from other false starts however, so for the time being I’ll refrain from putting it as a menu option at the top of this page!
What I do want to talk about in this post is a song that quickly rose to the top for me among the 100 songs in the set-Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground by Blind Willie Johnson. He was one of the artists I knew more by name than by his music, but I am sure glad this song made its way onto the set. The title was borrowed from a hymn popular around the time Johnson recorded it. In some ways it is impossible to describe a song like this one. It is something you just feel. If you allow it to creep inside you after the first few notes, it goes to an even deeper place. One could almost be dismissive at first-a humming ‘vocal’ and a series of runs up and down the guitar neck with the slide (for which Johnson allegedly used a penknife for) doesn’t sound so impressive on paper. But it bores down deep inside your soul however. It speaks volumes without uttering a single legible word.
I find it equally dark and mysterious. I personally think that maybe that is the reason for the title. Maybe Blind Willie Johnson’s guitar symbolizes the dark night. Maybe his vocals symbolize the cold ground. Maybe they are interchangeable. However you want to interpret it is valid. I just know that those words-Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground come from a place of pain. Neither one is an ideal situation if you really think about it-
Dark was the night. Loneliness, Silence. Fear. Maybe those feelings came from his own blindness. Maybe it just came from the feeling of night down some deep, dark country lane in Texas in the 1920’s. Maybe it symbolizes death, pain or suffering.
Cold was the ground. Winter. Misery. Sadness. Poverty. Maybe those feelings came from the actual bleakness of winter. Body aching from the cold. That feeling of sorrow and quiet that pervades. Maybe it too symbolizes death-burying the body in the cold earth.
Regardless of interpretation, I find the song unforgettable. I have caught myself replaying its haunting sound in my head several times over the past few weeks. It is one of those influential songs that has been heard in movies and documentaries alike. In 1968 Fairport Convention even put out a clear homage to Blind Willie Johnson with their song ‘The Lord Is In This Place…How Dreadful Is This Place. And musicians such as Jack White (a key contributor to American Epic) proclaimed it to be the greatest example of slide guitar ever. In 1977 the astronomer Carl Sagan selected it to be among a selection of sounds to send out in space on the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
Take a few minutes now and take it in for yourself without distractions. Imagine Blind Willie Johnson sitting in a recording studio in Dallas on December 3, 1927. The recording starts…Willie’s hands clutch the guitar. He runs his ‘slide’ across the strings. He leans into the microphone and lets out this plaintive wail of pain. Unlike anything that had ever been laid down in a studio before. Epic. American Epic.
The photograph was taken last week early on a snowy morning in Central Park. Though not actually taken at night, something about the scene seemed so bleak and sad. When I was reviewing the photos I took that morning Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground appeared in my head once again and I had the idea to not only write this piece about the song, but some of the other great material from American Epic as well. Stay tuned for more.
Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground-Written By Blind Willie Johnson
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle
Photograph Of Blind Willie Johnson-Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images
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