Saturday, April 19, 2014

Track Of The Week: Blind Willie Johnson, "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground"

Last night I was motivated by Good Friday to sit down and watch Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew.  It's an amazing film in that Pasolini takes the techniques of Italian realism (spare dialogue, non-actors, stark black and white imagery) and applies them to the story of Jesus, which usually gets the gaudy Technicolor treatment of the likes of Ben-Hur, King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Although Pasolini's sexuality, religion, and politics make him an unlikely chronicler of Jesus (he was a gay Marxist atheist), the film might be the most moving depiction of the Christ story I've ever seen on film.  In this rendering Jesus is both mysterious and utterly relatable, a slight-looking fellow with intense eyes and a fervent manner of speaking.  He comes across as a determined revolutionary, barely concealing his fury at those who refuse to help their fellow humans even while preaching love.  (Pasolini's politics are pretty close to the surface in this regard.)

Just as the filming techniques are unorthodox, so is the soundtrack, which uses passages from 20th century music.  The most effective in this regard is a snippet from Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground," which is a lamentation for Jesus lying dead in the tomb on the evening of Good Friday.  Johnson was a Texas bluesman who may have been the greatest artist of the slide guitar that there has ever been.  It's actually hard to call him a bluesman, since he sang Gospel and devotional songs, but with blues accompaniment and a deep, gravelly voice that gave his words of heaven an unusual earthiness.

"Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" has no words, only an unearthly slide guitar that sounds like it's a transmission from Mars, rather than Texas in the 1920s, and Johnson's emotive, wordless singing.  It puts chills down my spine every time, and reminds me of the pain I felt as a child when I went to do the stations of the cross on Good Friday.  Each year I mourned as if Jesus had died that day, and while my piety is much less intense as an adult, I am still moved when I think of a man who did so much for others dying in such a horrible way, abandoned by most of his own disciples.  As a child I was always haunted by the fact that Jesus himself cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  Forget your hymns, "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" is the only song I know that articulates the utter and complete despair of the crucifixion.

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