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?