Many styles of music strive to be the most depressing. Black metal bands, outlaw country singers and Future have all vied over embodying the most anguished and downtrodden personas. But no amount artistic masking or crafted intent can rival the depression that stems from a hard life of poverty, prejudice and prayer.
The proliferation of blues music in the early 20th century South made possible for these themes to be placed in an appropriate context and musical style that provided them with immortal impact, if by ethos alone.
Most people are familiar with 1930s blues musician Robert Johnson, who allegedly made a Faustian deal in order to compose seemingly simple but surprisingly complex guitar songs. His mysterious Mississippi death in 1938 made him one of the first members of the “27 Club.” But, at least Johnson had received some success during his lifetime. Other blues musicians were recognized only after they had died impoverished.
In that vein, Blind Willie Johnson — not to be confused with Blind Willie McTell or Robert Johnson — was a blues musician and preacher from Texas who faced hardships and a disability throughout his life and eventually died homeless in a burned down house from several ailments in 1945. However, Johnson’s reputation did not die with him and would become amplified in the decades that followed.
Among the reasons for continued interest in Johnson is primarily a 1927 Columbia-released song he wrote and performed called “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” It is a song so intrinsically depressing that it needs no words to express its message that is immediately evident.
Over the course its three minutes and 21 seconds, Johnson plays demon-conjuring slide guitar substituting a knife for a bottleneck (Guitar Player). The only comfort the song offers over the resonant, lurching notes comes from Johnson’s chesty hums and moans, said to emulate a church choir. The title of the work also originates from a 1792 English hymn by Thomas Haweis set in the Garden of Gethsemane, alluding to Christ’s crucifixion, and cementing religious overtones of human suffering.
“Dark Was the Night” not only captures the sorrowful essence of Johnson’s southern life, but transcends cultural contexts to encapsulate a universal feeling of encroaching despair. Although Blind Willie Johnson never left North America in his life, his signature song has since been interpolated by English rock band Led Zeppelin and used in the film The Gospel According to St. Matthew by legendary Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.
In 2010, The Library of Congress deemed the single culturally significant enough to preserve in its National Recording Registry. But long before that recognition, Carl Sagan chose to include the song on the Voyager Golden Record in 1977 that would be carried by the Voyager 1 probe, which introduced the song to an even wider audience of earthlings.
All of those creators recognized the transcendental sadness Johnson’s playing evoked on every listen. It almost feels like “Dark Was the Night” never starts nor stops, but continues to haunt the listener after the final chord until the next listen. Sagan described the significance of the song as “nightfall with no place to sleep,” which metaphorically sums up suffering and depression.
No other song possesses the background or execution that can match the dismal atmosphere summoned in “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” Its lack of lyrics displays Johnson’s withdrawal of trying to make sense of the world — he is only concerned with surviving in it.
In “Dark Was the Night,” Johnson lets his pain and uncertainty translate through his voice and guitar in its purest form and, thanks to Columbia Records, his painful catharsis will linger on so long there is another night to pass.
Luke Furman is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. What do you think? Let Luke know by tweeting him @LukeFurmanLog or emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.