The Song Journal

Miscellaneous news and writing by Bob Franke, mostly about songs as a portable art form, and the process of creating them and enabling them to do their work in the world.

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Location: Peabody, Massachusetts, United States

from Bob Franke began his career as a singer-songwriter in 1965 while a student at the University of Michigan. Upon graduation in 1969 with an A.B. in English Literature, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has since made New England his home. Bob has appeared in concert at coffeehouses, colleges, festivals, bars, streets, homes and churches in 33 states, four Canadian provinces and England.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

an echo of Willie Johnson

Today's Gospel reading in many churches was Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids; I took advantage of the opportunity in my capacity as artist in residence at St. Andrew's in Marblehead, MA to offer my attempt at Blind Willie Johnson's "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning." Here are the notes I offered to the congregation in this morning's program:

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945) was a street evangelist in Beaumont, TX who made 30 commercial studio recordings from 1927 to 1930. His remarkable slide guitar technique and his songs have had a significant impact on American music; his musical meditation on the Crucifixion, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was The Ground” was included on the gold record carried by the Voyager spacecraft beyond the bonds of the solar system.

What strikes me about “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” is the intensity of Willie Johnson's encouraging witness. As much as I love our beautiful Anglican musical heritage, I love even more the Anglican view of the Church's catholic nature, which asserts that Willie Johnson and all of us here at St. Andrew's are members of the same Church, though we may be in different branches of it. My offering this morning is a faint echo of one of my musical heroes, and our brother in Christ.

According to Wikipedia, Johnson remained poor until the end of his life. In 1945, his home burned to the ground. With nowhere else to go, he lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a wet bed. He lived like this until he contracted pneumonia two weeks later, and died.

Unbeknownst to me, our choir had prepared an Andre Thomas choral arrangement of the same song for later in the service. The contrast was striking, and after the service, our choir director Amy LeClair told me that I had supplied the dirt in my arrangement that she had been unable to put into hers. I replied that Andre Thomas had pretty much laundered it out, but that both arrangements were African-American.

The truth is that Blind Willie Johnson and his contemporary colleagues in country blues have had an enormous impact on me throughout my career. Even when my music sounds nothing like theirs (which is true most of the time), I can't put together a song without being conscious of what these artists achieved with solo guitar and vocal under the most abject poverty and oppressive social conditions. They have been guardians in me against the arrogance and self-pity that are not unknown amongst singer-songwriters. That connection, and its importance in my life, are really what I was celebrating in God's presence this morning. It was a joyful noise.

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