Willie Johnson was born to sharecropper parents in Texas. His father gave him a cigar box guitar when he was five. The guitar and regular church attendance were great influences on his life. Willie was blinded by his stepmother when he was seven during an argument with his father. His blindness actually helped define his approach to life.
Willie became a gospel/blues musician and was known as Blind Willie Johnson. His most productive period was during the Great Depression, so Blind Willie never made much money. What he did achieve was to fashion lyrics about the human experience. One of those songs: Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground concerned the experience of homelessness.
Johnson’s work was considered a master of the gospel blues style. While Blind Willie is not well known today, he had a great influence on other musicians. His work has been reinterpreted by the Staples Singers, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Peter, Paul & Mary. Other musicians who have recorded his songs include Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, John Sebastian, and Eric Clapton.
When the Voyager probe was conceived as Earth’s outreach to the Universe, Carl Sagan and others were asked to collect a representation of Earth to include on the Voyager. Twenty-seven songs were selected, including Blind Willie’s: Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground. NASA consultant, Tim Ferris, explained the selection: “Johnson’s song concerns a situation he (Johnson) faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight.”
The human experience is what shapes us. For some, that experience may be very protected and limited. For others the experience may be overwhelming. Our perspective on life is shaped by our own human experience. How we use that experience defines us as persons. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in society have come from those whose human experiences that helped make life easier for others.
One of the challenges that each of us face is to imagine how we can make our human experience beneficial to others. Every challenge we face should provide an opportunity for lifting the lives of others.
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“We gain strength and courage and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face…we must do that which we think we cannot.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.