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Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, and brilliant is that song drifting through space

‘Johnson’s song concerns a situation he faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight.’
Carl Sagan, on including Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (1927) on the Voyager Golden Records

The US gospel blues musician and evangelist ‘Blind’ Willie Johnson was born to a sharecropping family in the small town of Pendleton, Texas in 1897. After learning to play a cigar-box guitar, he performed as a popular street musician throughout Texas, eventually recording 30 songs for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1930. Little notice was taken of his death in 1945, and much of his biography remains a mystery. What is certain, however, is that today his legendary low-register howl and slide guitar persists, both on our planet and in interstellar space. Here on Earth, his music influenced the likes of Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and Howlin’ Wolf. And just beyond the reaches of our solar system, his recording of his song Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (1927) is one of 27 pieces of music selected for the Voyager spacecraft’s famed ‘Golden Records’, intended to capture the range of musical expression. This instalment from the US animator Drew Christie’s series Drawn & Recorded combines biography and mythology to recount how Johnson’s music made the unlikely journey from the streets of rural Texas to the stars.

Director: Drew Christie

Writers: Drew Christie, Bill Flanagan

Narrator: T Bone Burnett

Producers: T Bone Burnett, Bill Flanagan, Van Toffler

Website: Gunpowder & Sky

31 October 2019

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