“You were born in the light, Willie Johnson.
On a January day. In a small Texas town.”
So begins an extraordinary children’s book, tracing the life of Blind Willie Johnson, an underappreciated hero of the blues. In Dark was the Night, written by Gary Golio and illustrated by E.B. Lewis, Blind Willie is introduced in spectacular fashion to a new generation of young readers.
Blind Willie Johnson was born in 1897 in Pendleton, Texas. He began his musical journey playing church hymnals. After he lost his sight, Willie met another blind preacher/vocalist (Madkin Butler) who probably had an influence on his style. Willie’s recording career included 30 songs. His unique style caught the attention of blues critic Edward Abbe Niles, who praised his “violent, tortured, and abysmal shouts and groans, and his inspired guitar playing.”
In 1977, the United States shot Voyager I into space carrying a golden record pressed with 27 songs chosen to represent the human experience. Willie’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was included.
Dark Was the Night is a first-rate children’s picture book. The watercolor panels are nostalgic and emotional. (The picture of a train rolling through Texas belongs on my office wall!) The prose is clear, simple, and powerful. The theme of light vs. dark is startlingly effective for the story of a blind musician.
The afterward, detailing Willie’s life and the story of Voyager’s record, provides a fine and fitting epilogue to the story.
In a world struggling with negativity, the book is both inclusive and optimistic. I have not encountered a book that made me feel as good as Dark was the Night in a long time. I would encourage you to buy the book as a gift for young readers. Or do as I did, and buy a copy for a gnarled old reader who loves the blues, loves good art, and loves a story that deserves to be told. My highest recommendation. (Five stars out of five)