The songs Johnson recorded in those sessions, many of them older even than Johnson himself (born in 1897), have become familiar--either through their adoption by COGIC performers or, after the folk revival of the 1960s, rock and rollers. I'm talking about "Motherless Children Have A Hard Time," "Jesus Make My Dying Bed" (also known as "In My Time of Dying"), "Nobody's Fault But Mine," "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down," and "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond," all recorded not just by many a gospel performer but also by Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, and Captain Beefheart.
Johnson's version of "Dark Was the Night and Cold Was the Ground On Which Our Lord was Laid"--which turned the hymn into the deepest of wordless blues moans--is so deep and perfect an example of African American song that it was included, alongside the music of Bach, Stravinsky, and Louis Armstrong on the recording that NASA scientists sent to space in the Voyager 1 space probe in 1977.
Not so much straddling as making a mockery of any line that might exist between blues and gospel, Johnson accompanied his own gravely, froggy, cement mixer of a voice with bottleneck guitar propelled by a heavy thumb-picked bottom. His style was, formally, no different from the blues music of peers like Blind Lemon Jefferson. But every song Johnson sang was spiritual.
This mixture of sanctified religion and blues music style and energy was, in the early years of the twentieth century, something of a Texas specialty. Up around Dallas, Jefferson--who would become the first breakout star of the country blues--didn't so much mix the forms as freely alternate between them: straight blues, ragtime novelty numbers and spiritual music (Jefferson's first recordings were spiritual numbers like "I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart"). That kind of repertoire was fairly typical for a blind street singer like Jefferson--musical performance of this sort was a rare career path for the blind in pre-war rural America--who played what people wanted to hear.
But two other blind singers in Texas more directly blended the music. Working, like Jefferson, around Dallas (and later Oklahoma City), but in the COGIC churches not on street corners, pianist Juanita Arizona Dranes mixed barrelhouse piano with sanctified revival music in a style that influenced everyone from Rosetta Tharpe to Jerry Lee Lewis.
And then, down in Beaumont, near the gulf, there was Johnson.
Unlike Jefferson, who became a pop music star of a sort, and Dranes, who didn't record after 1929 but who performed in larger sanctified churches for years where she was heard widely and passed along a significant influence, Johnson more or less disappeared from the public eye after making his last recordings in 1930, only to be rediscovered via his records during the folk revival thanks to the efforts of folk music researchers like Sam Charters, who took the first pass at unearthing Johnson's biography; and, later Texas journalist Michael Corcoran who located a living descendant and a death certificate.
After making his last recording sessions in 1930, Johnson apparently lived and preached around Beaumont, Texas, operation a store front church in that city until his death in 1944.
All of Johnson's recordings are essential listening for fans of gospel, blues, and American music generally. And "Dark is the Night" is, at this point, probably the best known, but Johnson's recording of "Jesus May Up My Dying Bed," from his first recording session at a makeshift studio in Dallas in 1927, is something of a miracle too, not so much for its elliptical, swallowed vocal--which bites off the lyric and allows the uitar to finish the key phrases--or for its deep, mournful feeling, but for it's outrageous slide guitar playing.