DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Musicians ranging from Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams to the Blind Boys of Alabama and Sinead O'Connor have come together to cover the music of gospel blues performer Blind Willie Johnson. It's for a new tribute album called "God Don't Never Change." Music critic Milo Miles begins his review with Sinead O'Connor performing "Trouble Will Soon Be Over."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE WILL SOON BE OVER")
O'CONNOR: (Singing) Trouble'll soon be over. Sorrow will have an end. Trouble'll soon be over. Sorrow will have an end. Well, Christ is my burden bearer. He's my only friend. Till the end of my sorrow he tells me to lean on him. Oh, trouble'll soon...
MILO MILES, BYLINE: It's essential to emphasize the many contradictions of Blind Willie Johnson, starting with the basic one that he sang religious music while playing slide guitar that was all potent blues. He was from Texas but sounded like a performer from the Mississippi Delta. He often sang in a growling bass that was not his natural voice but a signal of his possession by the spirits. Most of all, as mysterious as his life remains, his songs are vivid and present. All the proof you need is on the new collection of cover tunes "God Don't Never Change." It begins with a striking rendition by another distinctive growler, Tom Waits.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL OF A MAN")
TOM WAITS: (Singing) Now, won't somebody to tell me, answer if you can. I want somebody to tell me now what is the soul of a man? I traveled to different countries. I've traveled to foreign lands. And I haven't found nobody that can tell me just what about the soul of a man. I want somebody...
MILES: There is only one known photo of Johnson and tales of his private life have an eery legend-like quality, not unlike the stories of other blues sorcerer, Robert Johnson. Blind Willie's widow, Angeline, told blues scholar Sam Charters that he had been blinded as a child when his stepmother threw lye in his face after she was beaten for infidelity by his father. Explanation enough for one of Johnson's best-known originals, "Mother's Children Have A Hard Time." Here giving as straight gospel reading by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER'S CHILDREN HAVE A HARD TIME")
BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: (Singing) Motherless children have a hard time when mother is gone. Motherless children have a hard time when mother's gone. They don't have nowhere to go, running around door to door. Motherless children have a hard time when mother's gone. Let me sing this. Nobody on earth...
MILES: "God Don't Never Change" includes many inventive, reformulated songs. The band Cowboy Junkies would not seem ideal candidates to cover Blind Willie Johnson. But their version of "Jesus Is Coming Soon" incorporates a sample of Johnson's original vocal that delivers his withering fervor. Johnson is not just a Christian but an apocalyptic who concentrates on the fallen world's anguish and calamities, such as the 1918 flu epidemic described here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS IS COMING SOON")
BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON: (Singing) Well, we done told you, our God's warned you, Jesus is coming soon. We done told you, our God's done warned you, Jesus is coming soon.
COWBOY JUNKIES: (Singing) In the year 19 and 18 God sent a mighty disease It killed many a-thousand on land and on the seas. We done told you, our God's done warned you, Jesus is coming soon. We done told you, our God's done warned you, Jesus is coming soon. He spread disease...
MILES: The most certain part of Johnson's life is his professional career. He drew large crowds as a street singer and recorded for Columbia three times from late 1927 to 1930 when the Depression devastated the music industry. He toured and played in New York City as late as 1938 before dying in 1945, either from malaria or the more legendary account that he caught pneumonia sleeping in the ashes of his house that had burned down. The standout reinvention for me on this record, the one that best conveys Johnson's strangeness, is the title track by Lucinda Williams. Her searing conviction hammers home Johnson's faith that an omnipresent God was not only all over the floor but down in Hell and could order a mountain to skip around like a lamb.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD DON'T NEVER CHANGE")
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: (Singing) God don't never change. He's God, always will be God. He's God. God don't never change. He's God, always will be God. He's God. God don't never change. He's God, always will be God. Right, he's God. God don't never change. He's God, always will be God. He's the God in the middle of the ocean, a God in the middle of the sea, by the help of the great creator, truly been a God to me. He's God.
MILES: Blind Willie Johnson's complete original recordings are made available on Columbia. And whether you hear them or this set of covers first, you'll immediately want to acquire the other. I want to acknowledge producer Jeffrey's Gaskill's years of effort to bring out "God Don't Never Change," including a kickstarter campaign, and praise Michael Cochran's detailed liner notes which come as close as anyone ever will to piercing the veil's around Blind Willie Johnson.
BIANCULLI: Milo Miles reviewed "God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson" on the Alligator label. Coming up, we remember Harry Wu, the Chinese activist who died earlier this week. This is FRESH AIR.
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