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.
Bank Street's Best Books of the Year 2023 9–12 List. —Bank Street College of Education, 2023
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
In 1977, a team of six men and women put together a set of the sounds and songs representing life on earth to be put on a golden record and sent into space. As the members of the team considered which music to include in the project, one song stood out for its aching loneliness and longing to connect with the huge vastness of space. That song, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," performed by renowned artist Blind Willie Johnson, was felt to be one capable of bringing warmth and light into the cold expanse of space. The book tells two stories side by side. One story is the life of Blind Willie Johnson. Readers learn about his experiences from childhood to adulthood, as well as the way his music affected people. They also learn about other sounds and pieces of music that were included on the Voyager record. The text is evocative but easy to understand. The graphic-style illustrations show scenes from Blind Willie Johnson's life, drawing readers into the experiences he faced. The text and illustrations pair the two topics together well, creating a symbiotic feel of a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Detailed summaries of Blind Willie Johnson's life and the Voyager expedition follow at the back of the book. Recommended for use as part of either a science or music curriculum.
–Children's Literature, 11/29/2022
This lyrical, important biography of slide guitarist Blind Willie Johnson, who died in 1945, brings together details of his tough life as a street singer in Texas with the inclusion of one of his haunting songs on the golden record sent into space through NASA’s Voyager mission in 1977. Johnson is a model of the Kwanzaa principle of Kuumba or creativity not only for our planet but into the vast reaches of the cosmos and well into the future.
–Mary Quattlebaum, Washington Parent, 12/03/2022
Bank Street's Best Books of the Year 2023 Nine to Twelve Informational History Books List, Diversity merit. Graphic art in a dark somber palette complements the text to tell the story of Blind Willie Johnson and the Golden Record sent on NASA’s 1977 Voyager spacecrafts. Back matter.
–Bank Street College of Education, 04/01/2023