On December 3, 1927, Columbia Records held a recording session in Dallas, Texas. They recorded six sides by a 25-year-old gospel singer/slide guitarist/street-corner evangelist named Blind Willie Johnson.
Among the six sides was a piece, not really a song, that featured Johnson: “humming & moaning; accompanied by his own guitar.” It was released in 1928 under the title: “Dark Was The Night – Cold Was The Ground.”
Though I wish I could, I really can’t describe this piece of music. I can tell you that contemporary slide guitar master Ry Cooder called it “the most transcendent piece in all American music” (Guitar Player Magazine, January 1992). I can tell you that it was included along with the music of Beethoven and Chuck Berry on a recording that was sent off among the stars on the Voyager spacecraft.
But you simply have to hear it for yourself.
So, give yourself 3 minutes and 22 seconds to just listen. Click on the link to Youtube below. (If you’ve got headphones, put them on.) Then, you try to describe it.
On December 3, 1944, New York City radio station WNEW debuted a weekly, 15-minute, Sunday afternoon radio show featuring singer/guitarist/songwriter Woody Guthrie. During that first show, Woody explained his musical philosophy:
“I hate a song that makes you think you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that… Songs that run you down or songs that poke fun of you on account of your bad luck or your hard traveling.
I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.
I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter how hard it’s run you down nor rolled over you, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”
Someone put those words on a poster. A framed copy of that poster hangs on the wall to the right of the window in the room where I teach.
For some of my students, it is the first time they have heard of Woody Guthrie.
Not a bad introduction.