Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, et al., God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson (Alligator Records, 2016)
Some 20 billion kilometers out in our solar system there's a disc with sighs too deep for words — moans, hums and slide guitar. The subject of this song, “Dark was the Night and Cold was the Ground,” is Jesus in Gethsemane; it's one of the 30 Blind Willie Johnson gospel songs that Columbia recorded in the late 1920s, and one of 27 recordings sent into outer space in the Voyager.
Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers and Tedeschi-Trucks bands describes Johnson’s significance: "I never heard a slide player, even to this day, play with that much emotion. I’ve only heard a few things that have hit me quite that strongly. There’s something so honest about his recordings. He’s one of the few handful of musicians whose music really feels sacred to me."*
Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, along with Tom Waits, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Cowboy Junkies, Lucinda Williams, et al. pay tribute to Blind Willie on God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson. Waits’ thick, gruff vocals work well on “The Soul of Man.” The Blind Boys of Alabama ably bring across the agony of suffering children in “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time.” The Cowboy Junkies draw upon Blind Willie himself — sampling his recording of “Jesus is Coming Soon” — a bold move, but one that pays off in this song of judgment and warning, appropriately juxtaposed with Susan Tedeschi and Derek Truck’s rendition of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” Lucinda Williams does double duty with the title track and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Her emotionally wrought vocals suit the material perfectly.
Tribute albums succeed if hearing the renditions of the artist’s work is, in itself, a rich and rewarding experience, and sends the listener back to the original recordings. On that score, God Don’t Never Change is a success.