"Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground" by Blind Willie Johnson (Lyric-less Blues)


Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, courtesy of Alligator Records, found on lonestarmusicmagazine.com

Continuing in African American Music Appreciation Month, this is a unique work by gospel blues great Blind Willie Johnson. Below are some excerpts about the song explained by Cary O'Dell:


“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is a song with a powerful vocal and no lyrics. Or at least no lyrics in a traditional sense; there are no words. Instead, what one hears against the backdrop of Blind Willie Johnson’s aching, piercing slide guitar are Johnson’s grunts and moans. They are the sounds of fatigue, sorrow, pain and death, and are meant to convey the anguish of Christ the night before his Cruxifiction from the point of view of both Him and his disciples.


The song’s title, music and basic structure was taken from an 18th-century English hymn titled “Gethsemane.” (Gethsemane was the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus is said to have prayed on the eve of the Crucifixion.) It was composed by physician and clergyman Thomas Haweis and was first published in England 1792. It begins:


Dark was the night, and cold the ground

On which the Lord was laid;

His sweat like drops of blood ran down;

In agony he prayed.


It was no doubt within this tradition that Willie Johnson would set down his version of “Dark Was the Night.” While he skillfully played the melody of the song on his guitar, he dispensed with the lyrics entirely, instead putting in their place his collection of piercing cries, hums and moans that replicated the emotional turmoil and deliverance of Christ in his final night.


You can read the rest of the essay here.


This song, if executed respectfully, would work well in a church service, especially one honoring the blues or Good Friday.

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