Artist: Various Artists
Album: God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson
Release Date: 02/26/2016
“Soul of a Man,” Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” “Jesus is Coming Soon,” and “Motherless Children.” Yearning, burden, faith, prophesy and maternal bond. These are the doctrines of a man who abided, and emoted through a tattered slide guitar in a voice that sounds ravaged by booze and knives. Blind Willie Johnson’s blues tunes—some all his, others he built on tradition—hammer the heart in otherworldly fashion, but are also cause for celebration. They’re recognizable and relatable across time and cultures, and perhaps beyond.
In 1977 NASA sent Johnson’s Dark Was The Night—Cold Was The Ground into space, just in case. That’s how powerfully his 29 singles—cut in five sessions between 1927 and ‘39—reveal the human condition.
The artists on God Don’t Never Change perform Johnson’s songs cognizant of his ways, but of their own just the same. That’s what makes the whole of this tribute so fascinating. Who better than Tom Waits to lead the parade with a finger-snappin’ “Soul of a Man”? It seems Tom’s always channeled Johnson in shards-of-glass voice. As always, he rips the soul from a mess of blues. Lucinda Williams gets down in the dirt with “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” her voice and the guitar suitably rough and ghostly. Derek Trucks then shows how to play his kind of sinuous slide inside a Johnson blues. With wife Susan Tedeschi and two Tedeschi Trucks Band vocalists, they make a deep yet illuminating sing-along of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” But the Cowboy Junkies steal the show with “Jesus is Coming Soon,” one of Johnson’s most affecting narratives. Their use of some actual Blind Willie in harmony with lead Junkie Margo Timmins creates an incredible effect—a blues with real distress and jittery thrust. The Blind Boys of Alabama sing “Motherless Children” gloriously, and Sinead O’Connor, Luther Dickinson and Maria McKee also contribute standout performances. Initially fan-funded, this project faltered for nearly two years until Alligator, thank God, rescued it.
– Tom Clarke