Blind Willie Johnson’s Music Authentically From the Soul

Music Reviews

Blind Willie Johnson, 1927

Because of my love for learning, over the years, I’ve taken as many free online courses as possible through various sources. Several years ago, “Listening to World Music” was a free course offered through Coursera and taught by University of Pennsylvania instructor Carol Muller. Surprisingly, the first week covered an enormous amount of information. Being that music isn’t my field, I found it a bit challenging. (I don’t play any instruments, but I do play the radio.) 😉

A portion of the course introduced us to Blind Willie Johnson, a 1930s era gospel/blues musician with a voice from the depth of his soul and talent like no other. As a small child, he’d been blinded by lye thrown on him when his parents were in a fight. (More about the life of Blind Willie Johnson can be read on Britannica.) 

I found that Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man” displays all three forms of authenticity. Historically speaking, this piece is true of its kind from the originating from an African American who had been known for singing and preaching in the streets since childhood. Exhibiting pure emotion in cyclical form, “Soul of a Man” was one of few songs to be produced by Columbia records while Johnson was still alive. The listener can hear the obvious “from-the-heart” tone in Johnson’s voice fluctuations, unlike the copycat versions that are clearly from those who have not experienced the tragedies Johnson faced throughout his life.

In the early 1990s, guitarist Bruce Cockburn recorded “Soul of a Man.” Although a great guitarist that added melody to the original song, nothing beats the raw primal authenticity of Blind Willie Johnson’s version, because only Johnson could relay the true emotions of his people. 

Which version do you prefer? 

An Interpretation of Huun-Huur-Tu’s Throat Singing Concert Series

Music Reviews

The purpose of taking a World Music class is to learn about something I hadn’t yet been exposed to. Tuvan “throat singing” is definitely new to me, and I wasn’t sure if I could tolerate it at first; however, I actually came to like it so much that I am listening to the concert again as I blog. The instruments remind me of the music I’ve often heard at Renaissance Festivals. The throat singing isn’t anything I’ve ever heard before or could possibly begin to explain, but the experience felt spiritual. The entire concert can be viewed here:

This is my personal interpretation of this particular Huun Huur Tu concert:

When I first began viewing the Huun Huur Tu live concert video, I was unsure of how long I could sit through listening to what seemed to be the “same” thing for an hour and a half. However, I quickly learned that it was far from my expectations, and I felt that overall, the concert was more like a musical play that told the story of a spiritual journey. The concert sparked my imagination, as I pictured the images of the music in my mind.

The orchestration begins with a prayer that sounds much like a meditation or chant (think “Om”), then switches to a more fun and freer rhythm. I pictured a boy on a mountain praying and then getting ready to set off for something new. In the third piece, Sygyt, I imagined a boy standing on a mountain and speaking to it (this is taking into the consideration the Tuvan history and relationship with mountains and nature). When he finishes this, the Chiraa Khoor begins, and he sets off on his horse for an adventure. The clopping of the horse hooves and the neighing of the horse are merely instruments being played by the musicians, but add a significant purpose to the piece. Karyraa “spirit of mountains” begins and it seems as if the mountains speak directly to the boy or somehow guide him.

Then comes the love story – Saryglarlar. It speaks of sadness, and typical of Tuvan music, the winds appear and seem to blow away the memories, sadness, and tears. The mountain (the deeper tones) speaks, the boy answers (higher tones), and the mountain seem to somehow join in the sorrow while the winds join as the song ends.

Kozhamyk seems to be a more joyful adventure, as the mountains (deeper) and winds (higher) seem happy. Something changes with Kongurei, a song about people migrating and loss after war. It is sad, as if people are longing for something (their homes, their livestock, their lives in general), and the following Camel Caravan Drivers speaks of homesickness.

Time passes and the “wind” (mouthpiece instrument) blows again in Sagly Khalaun Turula Boor, as if it is moving onto the next journey, another love story. Eerbe Aksy is comprised of horse hooves with both high and low tones that represent mountains and wind but then suddenly stops. What happens? Does the boy meet the love of his life and settle down? Or is it another sad ending? Is the Orphan’s Lament what this story is all about?

When the woman sings at the end, which is unusual for Tuvan music, the musicians play animal calls, particularly the crane and perhaps an elephant. An electric guitar collaborates with this piece, bringing together a sort of oneness with the boy’s adventure.

The concert ends with Aa-shuu Dekei-oo, a song about the lifestyle of the Tuvans, bringing happiness back into the images once again.

Their concert CD can be streamed or purchased here on Amazon.