Austin Music Historian Discovers Blind Willie Johnson's Grave

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Since his death in 1945, the grave of Blind Willie Johnson, one of the greatest bottleneck-slide guitarists of all time, has been unmarked. Now, thanks to 18 months of research and a dozen visits to the Blanchette Cemetery in Beaumont, Texas by Austinite Jack Ortman, the final resting place of this influential Texas musician will get the recognition it deserves.

Johnson’s music has always been revered by his fellow musicians. His songs have been covered by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton
, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, White Stripes, Bruce Springsteen, Hot Tuna, the Grateful Dead and countless other artists. More than 30 years after his death, Johnson's recording of “Dark was the Night."

Johnson’s childhood, like his untimely death, was heartbreaking. His mother died when he was a baby; his step-mother blinded him with lye when he was seven years old. (His song “Motherless Children Have a Hard Time” was covered by Clapton on 461 Ocean Boulevard in 1974.) One of Columbia’s biggest selling race recording stars during the Great Depression, Johnson recorded 30 songs between 1927 and 1930. When the economy ended his recording career, he became a Baptist minister. He operated a “House of Prayer” in Beaumont with his wife and continued to perform on street corners. In 1945, a fire ravaged their home. With nowhere to go and little funds, they slept on newspapers on their water-damaged bed. Johnson caught pneumonia but was turned away at a local hospital because he was blind (or black, depending upon the source). He died within a week: his final resting place unknown; his grave unmarked.

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