Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945) was a gospel blues singer and guitarist who recorded only thirty songs in his lifetime, captured on race records done for Columbia between 1927 and 1930. While he drew on both sacred and blues traditions, his lyrics were usually religious. His growling bark and masterful slide guitar were designed to attract the lost on city street corners.
God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson honors the bluesman with 11 hand-clapping, soul-stirring interpretations of his original songs. The record brings together a diverse ensemble with a variety of styles and sounds; Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams each offer two covers—“The Soul Of A Man” and “John The Revelator” for the former, “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “God Don’t Never Change” for the latter. The rest of the album features luminaries like Sinéad O’Connor, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, Cowboy Junkies, and others contributing new covers from Johnson’s gospel-saturated, blues-inspired songbook.
The project originally began as a Kickstarter campaign by the album’s devoted producer, Jeffrey Gaskill, and was over ten years in development. Fans of Johnson and his genre are blessed with liner notes in the form of a four-color, illustrated booklet that tells his story and the roots of his rhythms. From start to finish, the musical pastiche is held together by a gritty simplicity, infectious energy, and spiritual urgency that made Blind Willie Johnson’s music so influential—artists like Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and Bruce Cockburn have covered his repertoire. Rickie Lee Jones offers a benediction to the tribute CD with her raw rendition of a haunting American classic that Johnson immortalized as a gospel tune, though ironically he performed it as an instrumental: “Dark was the night and cold was the ground/On which the Lord was laid/His sweat like drops of blood ran down/In agony He prayed.” (Alligator)