Robert Darden’s excellent book, People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music, is one of those books that educates and entertains. If you’re interested at all in gospel music or American roots music, this is a must read. The early chapters on the African roots of popular American music should be required reading not only in music history classes, but American history classes.
The book contains many great anecdotes, but one has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s an account of gospel singer-guitarist Blind Willie Johnson and blues singer-guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson busking across the street from each other in Marlin, Texas.
What I loved about the story when I read it was the idea of the sacred and the secular bouncing off each other, and the two musicians competing for ears, souls, and pennies. It’s also extremely an cinematic image.
EXT: SMALL DUSTY CENTRAL TEXAS TOWN – SOMETIME IN THE 1920S – DAY
Two blind guitarists play their instruments and sing their songs on street corners across from each other. BLIND LEMON stops and listens to BLIND WILLIE. He tilts his head. In addition to the music, the SOUND of pennies hitting the bottom of a tin cup is prominent.
BLIND LEMON smiles. Is his spirit moved by BLIND WILLIE’S song? Or does he realize there’s money to be made playing the music of god? Or is he just digging the music, maybe thinking — Nice riff. I’m going to take that one.
When you write the screenplay, let me know why Blind Lemon Jefferson smiles.
When I interviewed Darden in Chicago way back when, I asked him if he’d recount the story on camera. He obliged, and in typical Darden fashion he did more than tell a story, he related the story’s bigger meaning and he expressed it beautifully.
Why No Moving Pictures?
Darden’s face and hands are very animated while he’s telling this story, and when he talks about musicians not stealing but “appropriating” the expression on his face is priceless. Still, I thought it might be fun to look at the photos of the musicians while he told the tale.
John the Revelator – Blind Willie Johnson
Black Horse Blues – Blind Lemon Jefferson