Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground

Posted on February 29, 2008


By Darran Anderson

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde

The last moments of Christ have haunted artists for two thousand years. Grunewald‘s harrowing Isenheim Altarpiece, medieval passion plays with their painted birds and gunpowder imitations of thunder, El Greco‘s Agony in the Garden, Bachs St Matthew’s Passion. Dali brought it into the atomic age, Warhol into the age of kitsch, Serrano into the age of the shockable.

Sacred relics from the demise have circulated for centuries, flogged to the pious by simonists and shysters. The dice the Roman centurions rolled for his cloak are housed in a Spanish church, the vinegar-soaked sponge offered to him is in Italy. They’ve bottled his tears for exhibition and it used to be said you could build an ark from all the assembled pieces of the crucifix that exist. And yet all of these and a multitude of other mementos, from the contents of the Vatican to the very concept of Jesus himself, will likely be outlived by the laments of a blind black preacher who died destitute and forgotten, struck down by pneumonia in the burnt out ruins of his Texas home.

There’s no shortage of chills in the blues canon. A myriad variety of murder ballads, field hollers and dustbowl laments map the darker side of life in the South. Standards like Stagger Lee and Crow Jane are based on true experiences, real flesh and blood characters that sent ripples through the zeitgeist by their wicked or remorseful deeds. Sometimes the scope is more abstract, existential, biblical but nonetheless just as disturbing; the apocalypse, the Depression, the Grim Reaper, the dangers befalling the working man or simple cold-blooded murder.

The term ‘Blues’ doesn’t do these recordings any justice. These are spirituals, musical folk tales to rival the finest Southern Gothic novels, songs that lament, evangelise and liberate. Amongst them is a wordless dirge, a keening song that Ry Cooder has famously described as “the most soulful, transcendent piece of all American music.” It’s name is Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground, one of only 30 tracks captured on tape by Blind Willie Johnson in his short life and one of the most remarkable in recorded music.

What we know of his life could fit on a postcard. He was born in late 19th century Texas. His first guitar was fashioned from a broomstick and a cigar box. When he was seven, his stepmother responded to a beating from Willie’s father by throwing caustic lye water into his eyes, permanently blinding the child. Highly religious, he earned his living, as many blind African-Americans did in the Deep South at the time, travelling around, preaching and singing on street-corners with a knife as a makeshift guitar slide and a tin-cup around his neck for tips.

An apparent danger to public order, it’s said Johnson was arrested for playing the Samson-inspired If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down outside a New Orleans customhouse. There’s another story that he went on Corpus Christi radio (playing God Moves on the Water and Can’t Nobody Hide from God) with the intention of scaring off eaves-dropping Nazi U-Boats in the Gulf of Mexico. Official records place Willie, now acting as a Reverend, running a House of Prayer on Forest Street in 1944. Just a year later, his house was devastated by fire. Homeless, Johnson and his wife tried living in the charred ruins, sleeping on newspapers on a soaked mattress. Within two weeks, he’d developed pneumonia (according to a coroner aggravated by malarial fever and syphilis) and, having been refused admittance to a whites-only hospital, died shortly after. Despite having sold more than 15,000 copies of his first record If I Had My Way/Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time for so-called race labels, Blind Willie was buried in an unmarked paupers grave in the coloured section of Blanchette cemetary, the exact location now unknown.

In his absence, Dark was the Night has had a life of its own. Inspired, in part, by an English hymn by clergyman Thomas Haweis (“Dark was the night, and cold the ground / On which the Lord was laid / His sweat like drops of blood ran down / In agony he prayed”), it is a largely wordless lament for the last hours of Christ, from Gethsemane to Golgotha. It’s night music, best listened to in the rare dark hours that the modern world allows us as a slight reprieve from daylight, work and money, cinematic in the thoughts it conjures up, heart-breaking and exquisite in equal measure. It’s returned in Piero Paulo Pasolini‘s classic The Gospel According to St. Matthew (soundtracking the last moments of a repentant broken Judas), the aforementioned Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to Paris, Texas and is echoed in the songs of Tom Waits.

The most spectacular reappearance of the song came about in 1977. The unmanned Voyager spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral and has been travelling through outer space since then, using the gravitational forces of the planets to propel it onwards. It’s filmed the centuries old, earth-wide storms of Jupiter, volcanoes on Io and the ice-rings of Saturn. The most distant man-made object from the earth, it’s left the solar system and is currently travelling at over 38,000 miles per hour through outer space (with Voyager 2 blazing its own path through the outer limits in turn). In 40,000 years time, it will be approaching the red dwarf star AC+79 3888 in the Ophiuchus constellation.

Onboard the Voyager is a gold-plated phonograph record containing sounds from around the globe selected to represent life on earth, a time-capsule cast out in the hope of someday in the distant future being found by extraterrestials. Added to sounds of thunder, birdsong, rain and waves there’s Bach, pygmy girls initiation songs, the aboriginal Morning Star and Devil Bird, Mozart‘s The Magic Flute, Navajo night chants, Beethoven‘s Fifth, Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring. And on there is the three scratched, crackling minutes of Dark was the Night.

In the unlikely event that we make it that far, in 900 million years the sun will bloat into a red giant, turning the oceans to steam. And this will be one of the last few traces that we ever existed, celestial flotsam and jetsam, conjured in the head of a penniless blind preacher, a funeral tune for everything we’ve ever done, built, dreamt.

Related: ‘Trouble Soon Be Over’ from Wim Wenders’ Soul of a Man / John the Revelator / Honey Where You Been So Long? pre-war Blues site.


Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika. He has completed a collection of verse called Tesla’s Ghost, a short story collection entitled Junk and is working on a novel entitled The Ship Is Sinking.

Posted in: Listening