The Story Behind the Story – Why Blind Willie Johnson’s (and yours) is Important

At this year’s Thanksgiving table, the group of family and friends that gathered discussed why we think (or don’t think) our own stories are important enough to record. One answer was, “Who’s going to read it, anyway?” The answer came to me this morning as I was reading a well-written article by Michael Hall in this month’s (December 2010) Texas Monthly magazine. The article is entitled, “The Soul of a Man – Who Was Blind Willie Johnson?” .

Blind Willie Johnson was an African-American who made his living singing and playing a cheap guitar “…traveling (Texas) and singing, going from town to town, corner to corner, church to church, revival to revival.” He recorded thirty songs between 1927 and 1930 and, for a brief period of time, was a recording star, outselling the renown blues singer Bessie Smith during the Great Depression. “By the sixties, Johnson had become a hero to folkies and rockers alike,” writes Hall. He influenced folk legends like Bob Dylan, guitarists like Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. But when reading his story (and the mysteries that will never be known about Blind Willie), I believe that, if asked while alive if he thought his stories were worth recording, he might have also said, “Who’s going to read them?”

Blind Willie knew only what he thought he knew of his story. He did not know the story behind the story. The stories of how he lost his sight and his path through Texas are fascinating. His story and music has not only influenced modern music legends, but now, since the Texas Monthly article has been published, has undoubtedly has inspired thousands of readers like me. What Blind Willie didn’t know was how the rest of his story would remain a mystery. Michael Hall poses those questions in his article. Those questions create even more intrigue and inspiration to Blind Willie Johnson’s story.

We can never know the story behind our own story. But it is important to realize that there is a story behind our story and those of our loved ones. It is, therefore, our responsibility to record those stories. Who will read them? It doesn’t matter! What matters is that they are recorded. If Blind Willie Johnson would have realized that, his story may have had a positive influence on even more people.

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