Monday, August 24, 2020

Light, Shine on Me! Dark Was the Night by Gary Golio


Outside of jazz and blues devotees, few know about Blind Willie Johnson.

In the 1920s he sang on street corners all over the South with a tin cup tied to the neck of his guitar, but his records outsold the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. He pioneered the use of a pocketknife slide for his guitar, and his songs were later covered by rock luminaries like Led Zeppelin, John Sebastian, and Eric Clapton.

And somewhere, out in the deep dark of space, the Voyager spacecraft, ambassador of Earth, carries a golden record representing our planet's sights and sounds, and there--along with Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry--there is Willie Johnson's song.

So how does a blind boy get along?

How does he make his way in the world?

Willie Johnson's mother died when he was four years old and he lost his sight a few years later. But he loved to sing, so his father made him a cigar box guitar, and he learned to accompany himself well enough to play at his church. Soon he taught a real guitar to sing along, even inventing a slide technique with a penknife blade that made his instrument sing in harmony with him. When he was grown, he traveled the Southeast, from his home in east Texas to Georgia, singing gospel songs in churches and blues on street corners and any place he could be heard.

And then in the 1920s he was heard by a music company rep and taken to a recording studio to make records. Willie sang into a microphone and the sounds were cut into wax and pressed into shellac. His records sold well. People loved them and they were heard all over the country through the new medium of radio.
"Nothing like it anywhere else!" they said.

But times got hard after 1929. Fewer people could afford records. Willie Johnson still sang on the radio and on street corners and in the churches for small change, but the life of a blind black man, alone in the dark, can be hard and short. But his music has not been lost, not to modern listeners, and not unsung in space and time.
"Dark is the night,
But my burden will be light ..."

And in Gary Golio's latest book about American musicians, Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson's Journey to the Stars (Nancy Paulsen Books/Random House, 2020), we know his music now sings among the stars. In a simple melodic narration, Golio's story touches the heart. The exquisite realistic but muted illustrations of the notable artist E. B. Lewis are in perfect harmony with Golio's strong and simple text, deftly set in a lovely book design by Suki Boynton. The author also adds an appendix with bibliography and a link for young readers to explore the content of Voyager I's Golden Record.

Gary Golio is also the author of such notable musicians' biographies for young readers as Bird and Diz, Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, and Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane's Musical Journey, (see reviews here). Notable illustrator E. B. Lewis won his Caldecott Award for Coming on Home Soon (Caldecott Honor Book) by Jacqueline Woodson.

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