Blues guitarist Blind Willie Johnson led a hardscrabble life, but in 1977, NASA's Voyager spacecrafts were launched, carrying a golden record to introduce planet Earth to the cosmos, and one of his songs became the defining anthem.
When the Voyager mission launched in 1977, it carried along a golden record with earthly facts and photos, greetings in multiple languages, sounds of nature and human engineering, and 27 pieces of music, including a song called “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” by Blind Willie Johnson. Drawing on folklore and fact, Lower begins this blend of science and biography with an overview of the Black street musician from Texas who sang and strummed the blues on his guitar after becoming blind as a child. In the fitting, melodious narrative, she describes Johnson’s now iconic song and why years later a team of astrophysicists, writers, and artists chose this “song of the human heart” to be “a bit of golden light in the dark, dark of night.” Kelley matches Blind Willie Johnson’s tone and the space subject matter with softly colored scenes of the musician and Voyager set against indigo blues and occasional orbs, planets, and records. More information about Johnson, the Golden Record, and Voyager conclude this lovely STEAM selection.
–Angela Leeper, Booklist, 07/01/2022
For Willie Johnson, the blues wasn’t just a musical skill set; “low-down, bellyaching, dusty Texas blues” was in his bones. His life was a litany of tragedies from birth to death: orphaned, blinded in an anger-infused accident, often hungry and sometimes homeless, hit hard by the Depression, and ultimately dying of fever compounded by medical neglect. However, his authentic music had for a time caught the ear of record producers and an appreciative audience, and when NASA prepared to launch Voyager with a hope that it might be intercepted by a distant civilization, Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was among recorded music included to represent human emotion. Lower’s picture book fusion of biography (noting “What’s known about Willie Johnson is from stories handed down”) and Voyager mission is appropriately touching and uplifting, leaving readers with a sense of bittersweet vindication for the triumph that posthumously crowned Johnson’s hard life. Kelley’s illustrations glide easily between dusty, grainy-textured scenes and naif imagery of Johnson’s story, and more ethereal renderings of Johnson among luminaries represented on Voyager’s golden record. Comprehensive end notes further explore the connection between Johnson, his song, and the Voyager mission; source notes are also included.
–The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, 09/01/2022