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. God Don’t Ever Change, The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson includes a diverse array of artists whose work may be rooted in the blues but whose range defies easy categorization, take Johnson on. The tribute CD includes two songs each by Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams, as well as contributions by notables like Sinead O’Connor, the Blind Boys of Alabama (with Jason Isbell), Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Rickie Lee Jones, Maria McKee, Luther Dickenson, and the Cowboy Junkies.
Waits offers the most intense versions of Johnson’s music. His versions of “The Soul of a Man” and “John the Revelator” sound like they were recorded at a cemetery parking lot at midnight under a full moon. Waits’ gravelly vocals eerily evokes Johnson’s growling voice. There’s something strange happening, and it’s god not the devil whose causing the mischief.
Williams presents a sweeter take on “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “God Don’t Ever Change”. She proclaims intimate knowledge of hard times, but proclaims the majesty of the lord nonetheless. Williams finds the sweet spot between the blues and the gospel that Johnson so amazingly brought to his music.
The other contributions showcase the everlasting value of Johnson’s material. The harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama get to the heart of “Motherless Children” while Isbell’s slide guitar plays in counterpart to their singing. The sadness of the lyrics is redeemed by the heavenly voices and the mystery of it all conveyed by the bottleneck making the strings ring like a church bell on a Sunday morning. O’Connor’s hopeful take on “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” reveals the solace one can find in true belief. One’s circumstances may be in difficult. Johnson himself died in poverty and neglect. But none of that matters in the afterlife. McKee similarly finds the joy in “Let Your Light Shine on Me”. She suggests the darkness is only a temporary in the context of eternity.
Speaking of darkness, Jones ends the record with a somber rendition of Johnson’s bleakest composition, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground". Johnson’s version of this was shot into the blackness of space in 1977 as one of the 27 songs included on the Voyager Golden Record to let aliens know about life on the planet Earth. Jones appropriately creaks and moans her way through the tune. You don’t have to be an alien to know the way the solar winds blow on her effort.