This week on WCLK's The Local Take(Saturdays 8am) I speak with author Gary Golio and Illustrator E. B. Lewis about the new picture book Dark Was The Night Blind Willie Johnson's Journey to the Stars. The story of Blind Willie Johnson's life is improbable. He was born in 1897 in a rural town in Texas. He went blind before becoming a teenager. But his music has been covered by the greats, including Nina Simone and Eric Clapton.
From those humble beginnings it is almost unbelievable that his music became a representation of humans for the universe.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter sent a probe, Voyager I, into space. A record made of cooper and covered in gold was placed in the probe as a representation of humans on earth. The recording includes words (greetings in 55 languages), sounds (a train, a kiss, a barking dog), pictures (mountains, dolphins, sprinters), and ninety minutes of music. There are panpipes from Peru, bagpipes from Bulgaria, and drums from Senegal. The record closes with Beethoven and Blind Willie Johnson.
Dark Was The Night is a song without words. Blind Willie Johnson isn't picking his guitar he's playing it with his pocket knife. It sounds like the guitar is actually speaking.
Gary Golio brings the story of Blind Willie Johnson to life. This is an improbable story of a Black man born in rural Texas in the late 1800's whose music is traveling to the ends of our universe.
E. B. Lewis has illustrated over 70 children's books. I asked if he was familiar with the story of Blind Willie Johnson before being asked to illustrate the book, he speaks to not knowing the story. He talks about his research for the picture book including travels to Texas and other southern towns where musicians played on street corners often near the railroad tracks.
E. B. Lewis shared his creative process including using the illustrations to show the vastness not only of space but of the landscape of Blind Willie Johnson's life. Some illustrations take up both pages of the book. He speaks about capturing the vastness, but including the intimate. He speaks about a small cat that is captured in one of the book's illustrations. He speaks about the enormity of being alive.
I asked Lewis if he listened to the recording while doing the illustrations and he speaks to the music having a spirit.
For more information on the book Dark Was The Night Blind Willie Johnson's Journey to the Stars.
For more information on Gary Golio
For more information on E. B. Lewis
For more information on Blind Willie Johnson
To hear Dark Was The Night
To hear Nina Simone's Cover of Nobody's Fault But Mine