Blind Willie Johnson, Sweeter As the Years Go By

Alex Abramovich

By Alex Abramovich

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Though he died a pauper's death in the ruins of his own burnt-out house, Blind Willie Johnson was the finest gospel-bluesman of his time — a fierce, gravel-voiced singer, and an immensely powerful slide guitarist whose music exerted a powerful influence on the Blind Boys of Alabama, Led Zeppelin and not a few artists in between.

Powerful sides (and slide) from the finest gospel-bluesman of the late ’20s

Spanning Johnson's five known recording sessions (which took place between 1927 and 1930), Sweeter as the Years Go By features the definitive recordings of "John the Revelator" and "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down" (which Son House and Gary Davis, Jr. would adopt as signature numbers). But the lesser-known songs here are well worth a listen: On the jazz-inflected "Church I'm Fully Saved Today," Johnson and accompanist Willie Harris manage to evoke the sound of a full Southern congregation, and on "Let Your Light Shine on Me," the singer shifts, midway through, from slow hymn to full-throated rocker. It's a stunning performance.

Johnson's third and fourth recording sessions saw some dips in quality. His last — which took place in Atlanta on April 20, 1930 — was a brilliant return to form. (One made all the sweeter by the fact that Columbia Records had provided an especially talented engineer.) Nine out of the ten songs he cut for it are featured here, and the sound quality, singing and playing are simply astonishing.