August Wilson’s play Seven Guitars depicts the tragic death of a black blues musician unable to take advantage of his stardom because he can’t get his guitar out of the pawnshop so that he might return to Chicago and record another hit single on a better contract. The play is set in 1948, a year after real-life inspiration Blind Willie Johnson, the gravely voiced musician eulogized in the new tribute album God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson, succumbed to pneumonia while living in the ashes of a house that had burned down a week earlier. Despite having recorded thirty songs, Johnson died broke, famously using wet newspaper as blankets during his final days.
There are a million ways to evaluate God Don’t Never Change; most of them, I think, will settle on the fact that it will likely go down as one of the best American roots albums of 2016. I think so too. However, the lengthy discussion that follows will not just be about the incredible music of Blind Willie Johnson or even the deserving covers featured on this album. In what is perhaps a risky move in the world of music criticism, I want to frame my discussion of this album around issues of race and culture because we are a site dedicated to covers: the origins of the blues raise questions germane to any discussion of what it means to cover songs belonging to a genre that originally existed to give voice to the experiences and suffering of a specific group of people.
In thinking about these issues and the cultural importance of the blues, it is useful to return to the works of August Wilson. The previously mentioned tragedy Seven Guitars is one of ten plays collectively referred to as the Century Cycle, Wilson’s decade-by-decade attempt to chronicle the black experience of the American twentieth century. These plays all take place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, with the single exception of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is set in a Chicago recording studio. In all ten plays, Wilson’s characters are never fully at home in their northern cities, hounded by legacies of slavery and the shadow of Jim Crow: unfair labor practices, housing discrimination, indentured servitude, police brutality, false imprisonment, and the constant threat of lynching and other forms of racial violence.
In addition to these more obvious symptoms of racism, Wilson’s characters have been forcibly and systematically prevented from knowing their own history, both at the individual and collective level; they directly experience and continue to be hurt by legacies of Middle Passage, slavery, and the African diaspora without being allowed to fully access or understand these experiences in ways that we in the twenty-first century might call processing: without being able to articulate their collective trauma to themselves or each other – let alone to their white neighbors, bosses, and landlords – they are for the most part unable to recover what has been taken from them and begin to heal.
However, the plays set before World War II do describe one medicine for all of this loss: the interrelated traditions of black music that at the turn of the twentieth century had just started to be known collectively as the blues. In Gem of the Ocean, Citizen Barlow gets his “soul washed” by a ritual that features a distinctly African call and response. In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Harold Lumis comes to terms with being re-enslaved in the 1900s via a gospel-tinged invocation of the Holy Spirit. The titular and historical musician Ma Rainey leverages the support of the African-American community that buys her records and goes to her concerts into a begrudging respect from the white producers of her records. The Piano Lesson culminates in a song that serves as an exorcism of a slave owner.
As I suggested at the top of this, the songs on God Don’t Never Change manage to succeed brilliantly as songs. When it comes to preserving the depth and breadth of the contexts and traditions of American music that informed Blind Willie Johnson’s ecclesiastic but world-weary growl, it helps that the nine artists here – Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Sinead O’Connor, and Tom Waits among them – are able to handle the spiritual aspects of Johnson’s work. Even when he was singing about the death of mothers or the influenza pandemic of 1918 – and we get his voice doing exactly that on the Cowboy Junkies track, a trick that works better than it should – Blind Willie Johnson sung praise music; the assembled talent is up to the challenge of performing the songs not just for us, but for God.
For example, Lucinda Williams flat kills “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” delivering the evidence of her own potential damnation with neither a smile nor a smirk; she’s even better on the title track where – as bleak as the truth of human insignificance gets in the song – she came to testify. Likewise, in the simple-pleasures gospel of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi pack in tidy solos very much in the spirit of a musician whose voice frequently made it hard to pay attention to just how good he was with the guitar. Sinead O’Connor, Maria McKee, and Luther Dickinson are just as good.
Perhaps least surprisingly, Tom Waits delivers “The Soul of a Man” and “John the Revelator” as if he’s been waiting forty years to pay Blind Willie back for demonstrating that music doesn’t need to be pretty to be holy, which of course is mostly true: for the last twenty years, ironically since getting sober, Waits has delivered most of his songs as prayers forgotten in a indigent preacher’s coat pocket, suddenly remembered, and presented imperfectly, coated with inexplicable crumbs and hair.
Ultimately, each of these versions – with the possible exception of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a song that might damned well be un-coverable – is gutty enough to get to the heavens and complex enough to listen to again and again. We are left with a portrait of Johnson that works against the deadly blues stereotype of the magical primitive, singing by instinct and feel; hearing these songs performed with reverence but not delicacy showcases Johnson’s judicious application of a well-honed craft and fierce artistic intellect.
However, even as these versions are fraught with the right kind of interesting trouble, the racial composition of this all-star roster makes it difficult to do as well with the distinctly African-American context described so fully by Wilson’s plays, a context that informs not only how Blind Willie was writing these songs but why. With a single exception – a terrific effort from The Blind Boys of Alabama – these artists are all white. I should be clear: I’m not arguing that the album would be better if it hit a “quota,” and I’m not suggesting that these songs are “off-limits” to white musicians, and I’m not saying that black blues covers are inherently “better.” It just seems a shame to me that an album working as hard to get these songs right as this one does didn’t work just as hard to catalogue the myriad ways in which the blues continues to inform the music of black musicians.
Again, I am not suggesting ill will on the part of anyone involved with creation of God Don’t Never Change, only suggesting that the relative lack of black artists here communicates that representation was not a priority. This maybe wouldn’t be a problem except that the album is good enough to end up winning a bunch of awards and potentially sell more copies than the entirety of Blind Willie Johnson’s albums combined; as such, the album risks implying that these songs are primarily of value because white roots musicians have found them and recognized their value. The image of the nerdy, dutiful white aficionados combing through an estate sale to find blues 78s recorded by black musicians is certainly one alive in fiction and non-fiction, to say nothing of the fact that Jack White is largely credited with the efforts responsible for assembling the intimidatingly impressive two-box Rise and Fall of Paramount Records.
However, as I teased at the beginning of this, the complications regarding blues covers go well beyond representation. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson’s Ma Rainey – the historical “Mother of the Blues” – says that “[w]hite folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking.” While I would argue that the white artists on this album certainly find a way to sing music that is built of life’s way of talking, the stories code differently in the hands of white musicians. For listeners who know Waits and Williams, the religious fervor here will likely read as the white, Dust Bowl desperation captured by Dorthea Lange or the New Weird America sent up in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. For listeners who remember Sinead O’Connor’s most controversial moment, it is hard not to read the faith sustaining her brilliant version of “Trouble Will Soon be Over” as a complicated Irish Catholicism. In each of these cases, while the songs remain gilded by loss and pain, the specifics of that loss and pain are altered.
Of course, most cover aficionados believe that this sort of alteration is what makes a good cover; we love it when artists are able to make an existing song new by making it theirs. Along these lines, it should be pointed out that the lone cover from a black artist on this album does this very thing. Johnson’s original version of “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” reads just this side of snarling; it is as much about slavery’s destruction of the black family as it is about the importance of mothers. However, the loving version recorded by the Blind Boys of Alabama reads as a tribute to post-Reagan portraits of black motherhood. As such, it is not the fact that these white musicians re-purpose Johnson’s songs that causes trouble: that’s what covers do. However, the Blind Boys of Alabama (and Sinead O’Connor for that matter) demonstrate exactly how much could have been gained by turning the songs over to broader coalition of musicians reaching beyond American roots royalty. Without making representation a priority, one risks a pattern of covers that, simply by doing what good covers do, cross the line into cultural appropriation. This is of particular importance when talking about a genre forged by the kiln of racial injustice given our tendencies towards being on fleek when it comes to racial appropriation.
None of this prevents the album from greatness, exactly. It just matters to me that the album is only thirty minutes long, with plenty of room for additional covers of any of the nineteen Johnson sides that didn’t get included. Ultimately, my feelings about this album are similar to my feelings about this scene from The West Wing, in which Aaron Sorkin uses his Josh Lyman proxy to culturesplain Blind Willie Johnson. In the clip, Lyman recounts what is perhaps the most surprising and notable fact about Johnson: his recording of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is one of the songs included on the Voyager spacecraft’s “Golden Record” intended to be an introduction to humanity.
This album and that scene both make me feel deep, abiding, real things about being human, while also making me aware that there are other things I should probably be thinking about, too. Yes, it matters that the music of a man who died the way that Blind Willie Johnson did managed to leave the solar system; but the original recording made by a black man during Jim Crow – the beautiful slide work and the almost-words that live between prayers and moans – matters as well. One can only hope that things like The West Wing and God Don’t Never Change make it more likely that Johnson’s songs, understood in as many of their original contexts as possible, get heard by beings living in a galaxy still very much dealing with the legacies of American slavery.
God Don’t Never Change was made possible thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, and is available from Alligator Records.
Wonderful review, nay, essay, Matt. Thought provoking as well as wallet-bothering.
In the first album, Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, all the songs are performed by black singers. On this album, God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson, they are all white. It was done on purpose.