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Long live the gospel blues

Rock singer Tom Waits (above) and Cowboy Junkies are among the artists in God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson.
Rock singer Tom Waits (above) and Cowboy Junkies are among the artists in God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson.PHOTO: ANTI
Rock singer Tom Waits and Cowboy Junkies (above) are among the artists in God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson.
Rock singer Tom Waits and Cowboy Junkies (above) are among the artists in God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson.PHOTO: LATENT/ZOE

A stellar line-up of artists pay tribute to Blind Willie Johnson in a new album

Hardscrabble was his life.

Motherless when young, the Texan native was allegedly blinded by his stepmother who threw lye on his face.

He was left on the streets by his father and preached and sang for money. By the time he died of malarial fever in the burnt ruins of his home in Texas in 1945, Blind Willie Johnson was only 48.

Although he is oft-overlooked these days, his legacy, however, lives on - a slim catalogue of 30 songs which epitomises the enduring power of gospel blues, influencing a generation of musicians from Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin to The Grateful Dead and Eric Clapton.

A new tribute album, God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson, aims to reconstitute his place in music history. Produced by Jeffrey Gaskill, it was powered by a Kickstarter project which drew a stellar line-up.

Tom Waits, the scabrous-voiced rock iconoclast who never sounds like anyone else, starts off the homage with a visceral take on The Soul Of A Man.

  • GOSPEL BLUES

  • GOD DON'T NEVER CHANGE: THE SONGS OF BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON

    Various artists

    Alligator

    4/5 stars

It is question after existential question, as he probes the core of humanity. "As far as I can understand, a man is more than his mind," goes one partial answer, delivered against infectious hand claps and noodly electric riffs.

He turns up later with another song, the incendiary John The Revelator, now transformed into moody swamp blues.

This time, he cuts loose. Each syllable is spat from the depths of his guts. The stark percussion spars with his leonine growl and a gospel choir shadows each phrase. "Now tell me who's that a writing? John The Revelator," he sings, coming on like a soothsayer who knows your fate.

His two contributions are matched by those from the equally unmistakable Lucinda Williams. Her Bourbon- soaked voice remains limber. Her honesty lights It's Nobody's Fault But Mine, but it is on the title track that it reaffirms faith in the face of strife, come hell or high water.

There are other surprises. Luther Dickinson, head honcho of American southern rock/blues band North Mississippi Allstars, sounds sanguine in a quizzical, nu-folk version of Bye And Bye I'm Going To See The King.

You are transported to the early noughties commune populated by neo-hipsters Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and early Joanna Newsom.

Cowboy Junkies go one step further by doing a Natalie Cole, that is, by grafting a sample of Johnson's original onto their own.

A song about the Spanish flu of 1918 which decimated about 5 per cent of humanity, Jesus Is Coming Soon is seance and a timely warning to mankind, with singer Margo Timmins' calm intimation providing a foil to the bluesy moan of Johnson.

The ambivalent quality is epitomised by embattled Irish siren Sinead O'Connor, who pours her heart and soul into Trouble Will Soon Be Over. She plumbs the lower register of her voice, invoking the title again and again, before rising over a febrile guitar line, into an unforgettable howl.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2016, with the headline 'Long live the gospel blues'. Print Edition | Subscribe