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Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson

dark was the night - blind willie johnson

“Dark was the night. Cold was the ground.” Nightfall, an unconsolable slide guitar, scratching, cracking, reaching, and weeping. No place to sleep. A Voyager song.

In 1977, Carl Sagan and his team sent an auditory representation of Earth and the diversity of the human experience on the Voyager probe. The Voyager missions took advantage of a special alignment of the outer planets that happens every 176 years. The probe was the first spacecraft to race by Jupiter and Saturn, revealing more of the unknown than ever before.

Come 2025, Voyager will stop transmitting data due to a failing power supply. The data, all communication, will stop flowing. Maybe, too, all meaning. It’s hard to say. A lot depends on who or what is listening.

That representation of Earth and diversity aboard the Voyager probe is a series of recordings. A collection of sounds. Frogs, crickets, volcanoes. A human heartbeat, laughter. Greetings in 55 languages and 27 pieces of music. Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was chosen as the human expression of loneliness. According to Sagan, “[The] song concerns a situation [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.”

Johnson wrote and recorded “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” in 1927. The song’s an instrumental featuring Johnson’s self-taught bottleneck slide guitar. Dark night, cold ground, a sensory story told through vocalized humming and moaning accompanied by an unconsolable guitar scratching, cracking, reaching, and weeping.

Ry Cooder called it “the most soulful, transcendent piece of American music recorded in the 20th century.”

It’s a song for the weary and suffering, the mournful and mourning. A song for those unsure of how to see more clearly and feel less of the cold sinking deeper and deeper. A song for those who are scared but not so scared as to stay silent. A voyager song.


2 Responses

  1. Interesting how music and certain chords and progressions can effect you. Listening to this definitely made me feel lonely and depressed. Made me want to drink whiskey. And I don’t even like whiskey. Weird.

  2. I’m fascinated by this song’s inclusion in the sounds sent on the Voyager probe. Other life forms ostensibly would hear this song and understand what it is to feel–to be–alone on Earth. They’d feel the shroud of night. And maybe they’d also want some whiskey …

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