God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson
The Rough Guide to Bottleneck Blues
The great gospel blues artist Blind Willie Johnson left behind a legacy of just 30 songs, recorded between 1927 and 1930, that drew their primal power from his ferociously raspy voice and thunderous acoustic slide guitar. Underscoring his lasting impact, the exciting tribute album God Don’t Never Change is a fitting salute, starring some obvious kindred spirits and a few surprises among the admirers. Rickie Lee Jones, Lucinda Williams and Tom Waits (whose skid-row vocal style seems directly descended from Johnson’s) hew closely to the spirit of the master, while Cowboy Junkies get uncharacteristically down and dirty on “Jesus Is Coming Soon” and veteran blues dude Luther Dickinson lends an unexpected delicacy to “Bye and Bye I’m Going to See the King,” with assistance from the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band.” Ideally, this excellent set will also send listeners back to Johnson’s own timeless, still unsurpassed, recordings.
One good place to start is The Rough Guide to Bottleneck Blues, whose leadoff track is Johnson’s thrilling “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine” (later “borrowed” by Led Zeppelin). While the compilation doesn’t include the electric bottleneck playing popularized by Elmore James and Duane Allman, this 25-song feast is a fine survey of the varied sounds possible when country bluesmen applied anything from a glass bottleneck to a pocketknife to their acoustic guitar strings. Ranging from hauntingly tender to scarily brutal, highlights include Leadbelly’s “C.C. Rider,” a staple for R&B artists and blues-rock bands through the years, the charming “The Hula Blues,” from Jim and Bob (The Genial Hawaiians), and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” by Blind Willie Davis. But there’s not a dud to be found. Here’s to a volume two.