I used to despise tribute records. For a few reasons, but chief among them: I saw the individual songs as glorified covers, usually wrought in inferior ways. Also, invariably, as a jaded middle school student, I always saw them on sale in places like Starbucks and Whole Foods, which cemented them as product in my nascent critical vision. Never mind that art as tribute has been around for ages—and I actually liked some covers more than the original songs; I’m looking at you, Mott the Hoople version of “Sweet Jane”—I was having none of it.
And for the longest while, my antipathy felt validated. Even the best, most noble, most well thought out tribute sounded flat to me, when I could very well just rip a playlist of the originals and be on my merry way. The trouble with this viewpoint is 1) it’s critically parochial, 2) retroactively embarrassing, and 3) hypocritical.
Plus, such a view (if I still held it) would deny me the various pleasures of God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson.
For those of you who need a primer, Blind Willie Johnson was the voice of God. Or at least one of Them. With his growl and driving slide work, he’s certainly one of the most striking and original blues performers—in a veritable pantheon of practitioners. And yes, he was blind; reputedly, his stepmother threw lye in his face to spite his father, caught cheating.
A gravely titan of gospel blues, Revelation tinges nearly all of Johnson’s recorded work. His second subject was hardship: “Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time,” “Lord I Can’t Just Keep From Crying,” and his signature tune, the nearly wordless “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” But throughout, his real subject was his own humanity. To paraphrase Jacob Marley, mankind was his business.
With a few exceptions, the players on God Don’t Never Change don’t surprise you. Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams stand at the fore, as do Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi and The Blind Boys of Alabama. But Cowboy Junkies? Maria McKee? And Sinéad O’Connor? To say nothing of ex-Black Crowes guitarist Luther Dickinson getting backing from a legitimate fife & drum band.
Waits and Williams each get two tracks and each (sort of predictably) brings the most “authentic” sound to it. Waits has a growl to match Johnson’s—and just as much interest in “the soul of a man,” and his “John The Revelator” is patented junkyard rock. Williams, meanwhile, brings much to bear on the title track and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” her drawl like syrup over Johnson’s words.
Yet neither steals the show. Rather, it’s what comes after the one-two punch of Waits and Williams that really solidifies this record. Trucks & Tedeschi hold their own against the original in performing “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” highlighting the same dynamic that made Johnson’s records so spectacular, while Cowboy Junkies literally borrow some of Johnson’s thunder on “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” a legitimately scary song about the 1918 influenza epidemic. And The Blind Boys of Alabama (the only gospel performers on the record) just explode “Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time.”
The rest of the album, with the exception of Williams and Waits’ second tracks, falls into two places: admirable efforts and bad covers. If you don’t like O’Conner, her “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” will likely not convert you. If you can’t stand fife music, you’ll want to keep Dickinson at arms’ length. And, booming vocals aside, Maria McKee’s “Let Your Light Shine on Me” flirts with sonic anonymity. Which brings us to Rickie Lee Jones.
Admittedly, at first, I didn’t like her version of “Dark Was the Night,” accustomed as I was to the nocturnal thrum of Johnson’s. Jones’ version felt overly affected, half or over baked. But as I approached the second half, when trumpet and tambourine overtook Jones’ moaning, and kept returning to it on subsequent listens, I felt like I got it—the nature of the tribute. Or at least I could appreciate it.
I think the biggest stumbling block I had in coming around to the validity of tribute albums (as medium, not product) can be summed up by a lyric from “The Soul of A Man,” which coincidentally kicks off God Don’t Never Change: “As far as I can understand / a man is more than his mind / when Christ stood in the temple / the people stood amazed / was showing the doctors and the lawyers / how to raise a body from the grave.”
These performers don’t raise Johnson. That’s asking too much. Rather, they remember him—some of them (it could be argued) better than others—but remembering is what counts here.
The first time I heard Blind Willie Johnson was through a cover, actually. Like so many other blues standards, I had learned of Johnson through the acrylic peppermint paddies of the White Stripes, a band whose gurgling plastic guitar takes of Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell had become synonymous with “blues revival.” Halfway through “Cannon,” Jack White breaks into the give-and-take calls of “John the Revelator;” in his hands, it’s less gospel and more stomp, rattling more than gliding as White’s voice sputters against static.
Now, I’m a little more learned. I know more of the righteous growl of Blind Willie Johnson, whose bark warned of Revelation and whose tin-pan guitar sprung with more melody than his contemporaries. He’s become as much a part of my music vocabulary as the White Stripes, Cream and Led Zeppelin (who acid-washed another Johnson original, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” back in the 1970s).
Fast-forward to 2016, when other music lovers experience their own Blind Willie Johnson renaissance. They decide to translate that renaissance into a tribute album, one of the most uneven formats in the medium, and cash in with a list of characters ranging from Tom Waits to a fife-and-drum band. Like most tribute albums, God Don’t Never Change sounds as much like a cash crop as it does a sincere tribute, and like most tribute albums, it’s an inconsistent epilogue for a legacy deserving of so much more.
God Don’t Never Change’s strongest moments are those that play it the safest, where Tom Waits gets to match Johnson’s growl in “The Soul of a Man” and Lucinda Williams slides “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” through the delta. They’re matches that feel natural; Williams isn’t a stranger to a defiant drawl, and Waits’s pensive snarl sounds like the natural heir to Johnson’s. Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks’s “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” sounds like campfire gospel, and the straight-laced Blind Boys of Alabama’s translation of “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” is downright spiritual.
Few of the artists on God Don’t Never Change really try to own their covers, though. Many simply bring in some Americana-inflected gimmick, be it the Black Crowes’ Luther Dickinson’s “Bye and Bye I’m Going to See the King” and its fife-and-drum troupe, or Waits’s second contribution, which mixes “John the Revelator” with the Freudian groan of a junk stomp. Only Sinéad O’Connor’s “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” really stands out, mostly for how much it resembles a Sinéad O’Connor song.
Ultimately, God Don’t Never Change does little to affect Blind Willie Johnson’s story. The covers presented don’t rewrite their songs’ legacies like the White Stripes or Led Zeppelin may have. They also barely undercut those legacies. God Don’t Never Change comes across as a tribute with little weight save for a few earnest tracks from Americana heroes with a more direct relationship to Johnson’s music. It’s cool to hear the likes of Waits or O’Connor spitting out a song that’s almost a century old, but the novelty wears off pretty fast.
As a personal addendum, I’m grateful for God Don’t Never Change. I don’t get to talk about old blues heroes that often, and I know of at least one person who found their way into Johnson’s dusty hymnals via this tribute. God Don’t Never Change may not be the best memorial, but if it leads others to Blind Willie Johnson’s modest flock, it’s done something right.
God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson is out now courtesy of Alligator Records.