Well, this is it – the final day of The Top 10 in Christian Blues. Today, in just a few short moments, we will release to you faithful readers the final two MP3s in the collection of the all-time greatest Christian blues songs. After today, you will no longer need to purchase any more blues songs, because they will only pale in comparison to the MP3s you already own.
Anyway, this has been a fun week for me, exploring the world of Christian blues, and I hope you had fun too, but I’m looking forward to next week, when I’ll be back to my random posts for a little while. I plan to put up some bands that you probably have never heard of – ranging from shoegaze to indie rock to uh… weird, artsy, experimental stuff. I think everyone will have a great time, but until then, we’ve gotta finish up with the blues!
Anyway, here’s that list you’ve grown all too familiar with - The Top 10 in Christian Blues:
10. The Psalters – Home for Refugees
9. Glass Harp – Whatever Life Demands
8. Bob Dylan – Slow Train
7. Waterdeep – Gospel Train
6. John Davis – I Should Have Known
5. Doug Burr – Ain’t Got no Chains
4. Larry Norman – Feeling so Bad
3. Skip James – Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader
2. Son House – John the Revelator
1. Blind Willie Johnson – Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time
Ask anybody who knows the history of blues, and they will undoubtedly bring up the name Son House. Son House plays the best blues of anybody I’ve ever heard, from a purely musical standpoint. Unfortunately, this song here, “John the Revelator,” doesn’t show off his agressive style really at all. I like the song, as a simple, slave chant-influenced blues-gospel song, but it’s definitely not my favorite by Son House or his best.
So why did I choose this sub-par song for the Top 10 list? Sadly, because it was the only Christian song that I could find that Son House recorded. I’m not sure where Son House stood with God, but it seems that when he started playing blues he was probably a Christian but slowly walked away from God over the years. Either way, this version of “John the Revelator” from 1965 may not be his best but it’s still pretty danged good.
If you love classic early blues or folk music, do yourself a favor and download a ton of Son House’s stuff from iTunes. His gruff vocals are great, and he’s got a way of playing the guitar that makes you feel bad for the guitar because you’re sure that if it had nerve endings it’d be feeling a whole lot of pain. He really hammers on the strings, pulling, twisting, slapping, and sliding on them to get some impressive sounds. So, yeah, download Son House.
For a little background, Son House was born Eddie James in 1902 and died in 1988. His mother had 16 other sons in addition to him, so life was probably a little nuts growing up. At the age of 15, he began preaching for the Baptist church. The church taught strongly against blues music, for the lifestyle associated with the musicians and the immoral content of most songs, but House was attracted to it and taught himself guitar in his 20s. Soon he was travelling the South performing blues music with local musicians instead of preaching.
In 1930, he recorded his first album for Paramount. Then in 1941 and 1942, Alan Lomax, working for the Library of Congress to collect audio samples of American folk music, got House to record some songs to preserve blues music for posterity. And that was it for the next 22 years. House stopped travelling, stopped recording, and probably stopped playing the blues.
In 1964, he was “rediscovered” in the folk revival, recorded some more albums, played some shows, and became a favorite of the new generation for playing the same way he’d played in the 30s. In later life, he was plagued with cancer and died in a Detroit hospital, but his music lived on to influence Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, The White Stripes, and others.
Dang! How’s that for a quick bio? You can take a break and breathe a little now.
Spiritually, Son House seems to have slid away from God over the years, but this next guy, Blind Willie Johnson, stood strong. The song “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” is neither my personal favorite by Blind Willie nor is it his most “Christian” song, but it shows his style off pretty well. Johnson’s singing ranges from melodic tenor vocals to gutteral growls, and his playing is an interplay of strumming chords, picking the bass line with his thumb, and sliding the melody with a knife blade. He mixes all this together in an intricate combination, all while not being able to see anything.
Blind Willie Johnson (not his given name), lived from 1897 to 1945 and is one of the founding fathers of blues music. Actually, he’d probably argue with me for saying that. Johnson was vehemently opposed to people calling his music “the blues” but preferred to call it “gospel music.” When he was five years old, he decided he would become a preacher, and that’s exactly what he did. Until the day he died, Johnson preached and played music in churches and on street corners.
Legend has it that when Johnson was 7 years old, his dad caught his stepmom with another man, so he beat her pretty roughly. To hurt her husband in revenge, she threw a handful of lye into Johnson’s face, blinding him for life. My guess is that this hurt pre-blind Blind Willie Johnson more than his dad.
Note to self: unless I want my kids to go blind, don’t throw lye into their faces.
Johnson recorded just five times, all for Columbia Records from 1927 – 1930, leaving only 30 songs as a legacy. He died in 1945 of pneumonia, poor, blind, and homeless. Only one known photograph of him remains. Few people know anything of his life, but he spent it the best way he could – preaching and playing music for God.
Check out the Wikipedia pages (links below) on Son House and Blind Willie Johnson for some more interesting stories or rent the The Blues, a documentary by Martin Scorsese. It’s not the greatest documentary, but it’s informative and interesting.
Come back Monday for some great new bands you probably have never heard of!
The Blah Blah – serving up the best in Christian MP3s