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Dark Was The Night is probably my favourite slide song. I love BWJ's original and also love Ry's version. I've been playing this song for many years and learned Ry's version from his first album, but over the years it's kind of morphed into my own. I never tried to learn the original note for note as like Richard says, I could never do it justice, regardless of what notes are played, the atmosphere and pain in the song I think would be impossible to recreate.
Here are two of my earlier efforts. This one is based on Ry's version from his first album. I was pleased with the tone I got here but I now have a vintage Martin 00-18 which sounds even better for this. My action was super low on this guitar and I think I had gauge 11 or 12 strings, so couldn't really avoid the odd bit of fret noise, though in my opinion it adds to the rawness and gives it a more authentic sound. I have a feeling Ry would agree.
And this is another version I sometimes play, more based on Catfish Keith's:
I've actually recorded another version with my vintage National which I'll be adding soon, which is kind of a mix of the two. Would love to hear other peoples versions....
Some of you may know that I haven't had a telly since 1988 so I couldn't watch it anyway, but what a superb "movie"? I got it as a free cardboard sleeved DVD "free" once on a Sunday newspaper, and for once I didn't just wing it straight away. Quite apart from the ethereally beautiful score, the closing 20-30 minutes are some of the most intense cinema I've seen. Fabulously directed by Wim Wenders.
learning note for note is a place to start, but you can bet thet BWJ never played it the same way twice. Nice shot.
On this particular piece of Blind Willie Johnson's music, I have to say that I disagree about him never playing it the same twice. While of course it cannot be proved either way, here is my reasoning.
This is such an important recording of a masterpiece that it warranted my full obsessive attention until eventually I understood what I was hearing and was able to play it.
I have studied and dissected this recording for many years and while there are many enjoyable and interesting versions of it, I have rarely heard anyone that actually understands the piece. People tend to play nice spacey moody sounds in open D tuning and think they've cracked it. Part of the problem is Ry Cooder's beautiful and highly influential original piece, "Paris, Texas", that was loosely based on Willie Johnson recording, but really only loosely. The other is the inability of people to concentrate on what they are listening to and to hear what is actually being played. Willie's recording is so captivating that it is hard to concentrate on the structure because the music carries you off into the blue mist. I can't tell you what I went through to get my head around it!
On the surface it is a very simple tune that is split into two parts that I call the "long verse" and the "short verse".
There are also the four fills between the verses, these come before each verse, which I have broken down as "intro fill" "short verse fill" "long verse fill" "last long verse fill".
The recording starts with "intro fill" which is almost "long verse fill" but not quite. Then it goes round "long verse" and "short verse" three times, each time is absolutely identical apart from some flattening of occasional notes to express a point. The end of the "long verse" also alternates between a straight ending and an embellished ending. Then there is the "last long verse fill" played on the top string, which goes into the last verse, which is the "long verse" with a different ending.
That all sounds a bit complicated, but it is actually not complicated at all. The mastery of the whole thing comes together when Willie Johnson's exquisite and beautiful vocal is placed over the top of the guitar part. This is what gives Willie's recording its unique and other worldly quality. The vocal also repeats a melody and phrases that are exactly the same each time around.
It is all so exact and well worked out that I really do believe Willie Johnson played it the same every time. The only difference it this and a live performance would be, I believe, that the live performance would have been a longer version of the same thing.
When I played Willie Johnson's recording to my Indian slide guitarist friend, Manish Pingle, his first reaction was "Is this guy Indian?" because while the tune and structure are simple, there are notes being flattened and embellished with ornamentation, particularly in the "short verse", which is very Indian. It is also very like his friend, Blind Willie McTell's playing. "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" is without question one of the most beautiful recordings by a human being, which is why it was sent out into space on the Voyager II Space Probe in 1977
Each Voyager space probe carries a gold-plated audio-visual disc in the event that either spacecraft is ever found by intelligent life-forms from other planetary systems. The discs carry photos of the Earth and its lifeforms, a range of scientific information, spoken greetings from the people (e.g. the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the President of the United States, and the children of the Planet Earth) and a medley, "Sounds of Earth", that includes the sounds of whales, a baby crying, waves breaking on a shore, and a collection of music, including works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry, Valya Balkanska and other Eastern and Western classics and ethnic performers.
Inevitably I’m bound to disagree to some extent Michael. Most of BWJ’s songs are set arrangements but where we have more than one recording of the same song we can hear differences, albeit minor.
The song is clearly a set arrangement of a Baptist funeral hymn written in the late 18thC “Gethsemene” and so the structure will be set, but beyond that, to expect a note for note repetition I don’t think is realistic, as you emphasise, much of the beauty is in subtle touches and these must depend on the player’s mood, how they feel that day, is there an audience?
I would speculate that if we’d had the chance to hear BWJ play this in church with a congregation moaning and singing we’d hear something even more stupendous.
Post by Michael Messer on Jun 3, 2021 17:12:43 GMT
Phil, I too am aware of the origins of the piece. At one time I listened to various other recordings of the Baptist hymn to try and get an understanding of exactly what Willie was doing. I found a few old recordings by Choirs, but I can't seem to track down much today.
Sadly, or maybe not sadly, we will never know the answer to that question and maybe it is better that way. I have my theory and I'm sticking to it. I think we should think ourselves very lucky that Willie Johnson recorded this incredible piece of music.
Here's a few interesting recordings, starting of course with the Blind Willie Johnson one.
I hate that they have used a photo of the wrong Blind Willie. For those who don't know, the photo is of Willie McTell, not Willie Johnson. Idiots!