© Copyright Oscar Grillo 2011
Blind Willie Johnson [*]
God moves on the water (1929)
"Blind" Willie Johnson (January 22, 1897 – September 18, 1945
Blind Willie Johnson, according to his death certificate, was born in 1897 near Brenham, Texas (before the discovery of his death certificate, Temple, Texas had been suggested as his birthplace). When he was five, he told his father he wanted to be a preacher, and then made himself a cigar box guitar. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried soon after her death.
Johnson was not born blind, and, although it is not known how he lost his sight, Angeline Johnson told Samuel Charters that when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man. The stepmother then picked up a handful of lye and threw it, not at Willie's father, but into the face of young Willie.
It is thought that Johnson was married twice, first to a woman with the same first name, Willie B Harris, and later to a young singer named Angeline. Johnson was also said to be married to a sister of blues artist, L.C. Robinson.[No marriage certificates have yet been discovered.[As Angeline Johnson often sang and performed with him, the first person to attempt to research his biography, Samuel Charters, made the mistake of assuming it was Angeline who had sung on several of Johnson's records. However, later research showed that it was Johnson's first wife.
Johnson remained poor until the end of his life, preaching and singing in the streets of Beaumont, Texas to anyone who would listen. A city directory shows that in 1945, a Rev W J Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, Beaumont, Texas. This is the same address listed on Blind Willie's death certificate. In 1945, his home burned to the ground. With nowhere else to go, Johnson lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a wet bed in the August/September Texas heat. He lived like this until he contracted malaria and died. (The death certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.) In a later interview his wife, Angeline, said she tried to take him to a hospital but they refused to admit him because he was black, while other sources report that, according to Johnson's wife, his refusal was due to his blindness. Although there is some dispute as to where his exact grave location is, in 2009, the Blanchette Cemetery was officially located by two researchers. Members of the Beaumont community and researchers are committed to preserving it.