We love underdogs. Whether it’s a boxer winning a title bout against all odds, a small business that strikes a million dollar deal, or in the case of current NASA news, a little spacecraft that made its way out of the Solar System. Voyager 1 is the first man-made creation to make it through to the other side of space. This was an achievement 36 years in the making. Although it’s traveled billions of miles through space without crashing, burning up or both, it’s not done yet. Apparently, if it makes it to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, another 40,000 years would have passed. Beyond the mind-boggling science that makes this an inspirational feat for humankind, there’s another, amazingly touching story as well. The fact that the music of Blind Willie Johnson is on that spaceship representing the inhabitants of planet Earth.
Folklore has it that as a child, little Willie was blinded by his stepmother who threw lye in his face as retribution for his father’s misdeeds. Despite this horrendous affliction, the blinded child mastered playing a cigar box guitar. As an adult, it’s said that he preached and played music for money on the corner streets of a rural town in Texas. The one-of-a-kind gravelly voice caught the attention of scouts from Columbia Records, who made recordings of Johnson singing his powerful hymns about struggle, faith and redemption, which were released on the 78 shellac record format of the 1920s.
Although his music was available nationally, Johnson was likely paid modestly for his art. At middle age, he died after contracting pneumonia; the aftermath of a house fire. He apparently had no where else to go, so he slept on a water-soaked bed. He became ill, was refused treatment at a local hospital and died a pauper. Decades later, his music went on to influence countless rock and roll stars. However, the posthumous redemption wasn’t done there. In 1972, as part of NASA’s Voyager mission, a gold record was pressed and placed into the capsule with visual instructions on how to play the analog recordings which contained various sounds from Earth. This was done in case the capsule were to be discovered by intelligent life in the distant future; this way, they could learn about our planet and its people. Among those recordings are animal sounds and orchestras playing Bach and Mozart. One of the tracks is Blind Willie Johnson’s “Cold Was The Ground, Dark Was The Night,” which was meant to symbolize the immense loneliness that we can all at times feel.
The story about an amazing talent, who seems to have been wronged in many ways during life, yet, becomes a representative for the struggles of human existence, is the ultimate tale of the underdog prevailing. Upon hearing of Voyager 1’s breach into interstellar space, a celebration seems in order for the life and music of Mr. Johnson.
by I. Vasquetelle