Thursday, April 21, 2011

Blues For A Good Friday

The crucifixion of Christ has inspired so much art: great paintings, literature and, of course, music. But I want to talk about one song - a song that clocks in a little over thee minutes - Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark was the night, cold was the ground".

This very stark, dark piece features just one acoustic guitar (allegedly a knife was used as a slide) and a few moaned notes. With that sparse setup, Johnson sings about the great tragedy of that night when "His sweat like drops of blood ran down /In agony he prayed".

Now, those words don't actually appear in the song. In fact, Johnson's song does not contain any words at all. Those words (and the song's title) come from an old English hymn called Gethsemane, which served as the inspiration for "Dark was the night". (Wiki has more details).

The song reminds me a little of Hindustani music in its rejection of lyrics. Words can distract us from experiencing the emotion that arises from listening to a pure note or a great melody. In another way, this blues song could also be thought of as a continuation of the same line of thinking that runs through Impressionistic (or Abstract) art. By moving away from forms and shapes - the "words" of a painting - it is still possible to communicate. Besides, what words can truly express the sadness felt at the passing of that kind, decent man?

And so Johnson sings.

Dark was the night, cold was the ground. This is American blues at its finest.

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