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Johnson grew up near Temple, TX. When he was seven years old, his stepmother, fighting with his father, threw lye in Johnson's face, permanently blinding him. From his youth, he sang gospel songs while accompanying himself on guitar, for donations on the streets of small towns and cities, mostly in Texas. Johnson recorded 30 songs in Dallas, and Atlanta. in 1927-30.
He was noted for the energy and power of his singing and for his original guitar accompaniments. His strong voice was a rough, low baritone. Joined with his urgently rhythmic guitar, his harsh singing achieved great force in "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down," a narrative of the biblical Samson and Delilah story. While most of his recordings conveyed similar potency, he created a unique blend of vocal moaning with slide guitar lines in the slow, haunting "Dark Was the Night--Cold Was the Ground," a song about Jesus’ crucifixion.
He continued to sing and solicit support until, after his house burned down. Blind Willie Johnson caught pneumonia and died in 1947 in Beaumont, Texas.
Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians
Edited by Lawrence Cohn
Copyright 1993 Abbeville Publishing Group, New York