Tuesday 23 October 2018

From the Lone Star State to outer space

Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder

NICK KELLY

Next month is the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Wim Wenders' hugely influential film Paris, Texas. The story of a hangdog drifter from the Lone Star State (played by Harry Dean Stanton) trying to reconnect with his long-departed wife and son, the movie gained much of its force from Ry Cooder's unforgettable soundtrack. This lent Wenders' panoramic images of the baking hot Texas desert a rootsy authenticity. And it was decisive in giving the film a haunting and haunted tone that led rock stars from Kurt Cobain to Elliott Smith to declare it one of their favourite movies of all time.

Closer to home, U2 have acknowledged that Paris, Texas was a huge source of inspiration for The Joshua Tree album (cue image of four Dubliners posing sullenly in an American desert ... ).

The rich timbre of Cooder's mellifluous slide guitar was front and centre of Wenders' movie. The LA guitarist, songwriter and producer -- who plays three nights in Dublin's Olympia Theatre in June -- based the score on an old spiritual from Blind Willie Johnson, called Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, which Cooder described as "the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music".

Johnson was the quintessential Southern American blues singer -- having grown up black, blind, penniless and motherless in the town of Brenham, Texas, Johnson persevered thanks to the strength of his religious faith.

Born in 1897, at the age of five he declared that he wanted to be a preacher, and made for himself that archetypal blues instrument -- the cigar box guitar -- which he played using a brass ring for the slide effect that Cooder would master decades later.

Later moving to the Texan town of Beaumont, he fulfilled his childhood ambition when he took to preaching and singing at the side of the street, regaling passers-by with spirituals and the gospel and blues standards of the day (but no Bob Marley or Oasis, thank God). Despite his extreme poverty, Johnson always dressed well, wearing a smart grey suit and sporting a pencil moustache.

His own modest abode was a House of Prayer, and he continued to preach from it -- until it was burned to a cinder in a fire. (Very possibly, he woke up the next morning to find his dog had run off.) Continuing to live among the ashes of the house in the open air, Blind Willie Johnson contracted pneumonia and died a few weeks later in 1945, although there were reports that his cause of death was actually a combination of malaria and syphilis. His widow Angeline also reported that he had been refused treatment at the white-run local hospital on the grounds of his race and/or his visual disability.

What we do know, though, is that Blind Willie Johnson lives on in the music that he composed on his battered old cigar box guitar during the first Great Credit Crunch -- sorry, Great Depression -- in the 1920s and '30s. Songs like 'It's Nobody's Fault But Mine' and 'In My Time of Dying' which he recorded for Columbia Records, took on a rich after-life themselves, with everyone from fellow Columbia artists Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Nick Cave either covering or refashioning the tunes.

Although Blind Willie Johnson only recorded about 30 known songs in his lifetime, 'Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground' has arguably become the most celebrated, thanks in part to Cooder's masterful interpretation.

The most recent version came only a few months ago when the cult UK indie label 4AD released a compilation charity album titled Dark Was The Night, which featured avant-garde classical troupe The Kronos Quartet re- imagining the song for the title track.

But it also crops up in the acclaimed Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line as well as the late Italian director Pasolini's film The Gospel According To St Matthew. And in a surreal twist, the tune is included on a special record that NASA sent into space with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, so presumably it's now big on Mars too.

I wonder if Johnson ever imagined that the tune he was playing on his bottleneck guitar on a street corner in a small town in Depression-era Texas would one day (possibly) be all the rage among one-eyed little green globular creatures in a galaxy far, far away?

nkelly@independent.ie

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