Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground

And while I was preparing the film, I realized they both had a forerunner, and that there was a third musician I should really include: Blind Willie Johnson. I knew even less about him than the other two. There is not a single photograph of the man, just one rather graphic portrait that was an ad for a recording of his in the late 1920's. You can't really judge from that what he might have looked like. So Blind Willie was a total mystery, but he had written some great songs, one in particular, "Dark Was the Night," that I had at one point selected and used as temp music for Paris, Texas when I first showed the film to Ry Cooder. I had indicated to Ry that a bottleneck guitar style was what I would love to hear on the film somehow. Ry was very taken by the idea. He knew that song really well; actually, he had recorded it once himself. The theme of "Dark Was the Night" eventually became the main musical theme of Paris, Texas. Blind Willie Johnson only sang sacred music, never touched a single secular song, although his techniques — especially his bottleneck style — are among the finest in blues history, to quote somebody as competent as Eric Clapton. And of course as far as guitar playing, rhythm, or singing is concerned, it's the same music. Later on, Blind Willie became the "narrator" of my film. That might sound weird, as he died in 1947. But Blind Willie really saved my film. I was at a loss as to which perspective I could tell our story from, until I remembered that Blind Willie's song "Dark Was the Night" had been picked as one of the handful of songs that represented contemporary twentieth-century music on the record that went out with the space probe Voyager into outer space.