Blind Willie Johnson didn’t write the standard “Motherless Children,” but he was the first to record it, in 1927. And he sang it with the sort of conviction that would make you believe he wrote it, possibly because he lost his own mother at a very young age. The story goes that Johnson’s stepmother is the one responsible for the “Blind” before his name. When his father beat her for cheating, she threw water and lye in the boy’s face as retribution. Accounts vary as to whether the lye was intended for young Willie or his father.
Johnson spent his adult life as a poor Texas preacher. His home burned in 1945. Having no other place to go, he simply continued to live in its charred ruins until he contracted, depending on the source, either malaria or pneumonia, and died.
Other well-known recorders of “Motherless Children” include The Carter Family, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton. Gillian Welch used the tune and reworked the lyrics for her “No One Knows My Name.” Each of these recordings is powerful in its own way. But the grit and the ever-so-slight quiver in Rev. W.J. Johnson’s delivery gives the impression that it is pouring directly out from his soul.
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lines inspired by blind willie johnson
the hot season the white daylight season the season
of knifeglint over fretboard texas season
of hope for better but don’t expect it season
one way short circuit eyes see miles inward god
blanketed in darkness got to call to him he’s taking
confessions no season for over reason every season
the season for hell fire every season great depression season
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