Good Friday Blues

The devastating, wordless groaning of one of the greatest songs of all time. /

The night is still, there is no rhythm or movement, and the crackles of the recording provide the only steady presence. In comes a weary, groaning slide guitar, followed by a tender moan. The open-D tuned guitar almost sounds like it’s crying: not a full-on wail, but a whimpering as if it’s already been up crying all night. The man’s voice has no words to express, but simply moans and groans, echoing the cries of the guitar. It’s a truly sobering piece of music, but one that perfectly encapsulates the suffering and sadness of Christ’s death.

In 1927, Texas gospel bluesman Blind Willie Johnson recorded "Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground” with Columbia Records. It was the first of what would become six days of recording over three years. That day he also recorded his blues classic “It’s Nobody's Fault but Mine,” which would become the A-side to “Dark Was the Night’s” 78 rpm release.

He borrowed the title from an 18th century English hymn by Thomas Haweis:

Dark was the night, cold was the ground
on which the Lord was laid;
His sweat, like drops of blood, ran down;
In agony he prayed.

There are no lyrics to Johnson’s piece, but the agony is clear.

The 3 minutes and 22 seconds of “Dark Was the Night” are devastatingly sad yet stunningly soulful. Johnson's voice echoes the pain and suffering of his guitar: the sound of a man who has known and felt defeated by hardship after hardship. Johnson, known for his throaty, rough delivery, is at his most tender and earnest here. In his 30-song career, there is no other song he recorded that sounds remotely like “Dark Was the Night.” Really there is no song in recorded ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 44 / March 17, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from March 17, 2016

    Issue 44: Walking Spain’s Camino, miscarriage and the universe, and a Good Friday groan. /

  2. Walk This Way

    Notes from a journey on the Camino de Santiago. /

  3. I, Universe

    What my miscarriage helped me see about my place in the cosmos. /

  4. The Donkey

    “I keep my secret still” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 44: Links to amazing stuff.

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