A Song for the Cosmos
A Song for the Cosmos
A Song for the Cosmos

A Song for the Cosmos

Jan Lower (Author)

Gary Kelley (Illustrator)

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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.

Reviews

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

Although he is considered a legend today, Blues and Gospel musician “Blind” Willie Johnson endured a life filled with hardship. Born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, Johnson was blinded at a young age during a violent encounter between his parents. After being gifted a home-made guitar by his father (made of wood and an old cigar box), Willie turned to music, and soon began performing on street corners and in church. These were hard times for Willie, and he was frequently homeless and hungry. However, better times were on their way- a record company scout overheard Johnson playing on the street, and he was paid to record several of his songs.One of these songs was “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, a song of woe and melancholy that seemed to strike a chord with all who heard it. People heard their own pain and loneliness mirrored in Johnson’s music, and the hymn soon became his most popular song.Unfortunately, better times didn’t last for Willie. With the Great Depression came hard times for everyone, and music became a luxury most could not afford. After a house fire left Willie and his wife destitute, Willie became ill and soon died, buried in an unmarked grave in Texas.But this wasn’t the end for Willie…In the 1970s, a group of researchers, including Carl Sagan, were tasked with collecting a representation of the human experience to be sent into space on the Voyager Space Probe. The collection would serve as in introduction to the human race with whatever life the probe encountered. These experiences were recorded on two golden records. Included were greetings in several languages, the sounds of different animals, footsteps, heartbeats, children laughing and more. To express human emotion, the researchers chose music. A variety of music styles from around the world were included, including Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, a beautiful ode to the desire for true emotional connection.More than just a biography of Johnson, a musical legend many may not have heard of, this picture book also provides information and context for his special place in history: as creator of a beautiful message about what it means to be human.This book contains additional information on Willie Johnson, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, the golden records and the Voyager Mission.

–Michelle Abeln, Booksource, 10/22/2022

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