Great song: John The Revelator

The Best Songs: John The Revelator

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
– Revelation 1:1-3

John the Revelator is a traditional gospel blues call and response song.  Music critic Thomas Ward describes it as “one of the most powerful songs in all of pre-war acoustic music … [which] has been hugely influential to blues performers”. Blind Willie Johnson recorded John the Revelator in 1929 (or 1930) and is the first known recording (at least to me) and subsequently a variety of artists have recorded their renditions of the song, often with variations in the verses and music.

The song’s title refers to John of Patmos (or traditionally John the Apostle) in his role as the author of the Book of Revelation. A portion of that book focuses on the opening of seven seals and the resulting apocalyptic events. In its various versions, the song quotes several passages from the Bible in the tradition of American spirituals.

This is a dark and brooding masterpiece!

The Blind Willie Johnson version:

Blind Willie Johnson recorded the song on April 20, 1929 (or 1930) in Atlanta (his second (1929) or his fifth and final recording session for Columbia Records (1930)). He is accompanied by his first wife (probably), Willie B. Harris. Johnson was a gospel blues singer and guitarist. While the lyrics of his songs were usually religious, his music drew from both sacred and blues traditions. It is characterized by his slide guitar accompaniment and tenor voice, and his frequent use of a lower-register ‘growl’ or false bass voice.

Blind Willie Johnson – John The Revelator:

Johnson’s lyrics reference a number of passages from the Bible:

[call] Well who’s that writin’? [response] John the Revelator
Who’s that writin’? John the Revelator
Who’s that writin’? John the Revelator
A book of the seven seals
[call] Tell me what’s John writin’? [response] Ask the Revelator
What’s John writin’? Ask the Revelator
What’s John writin’? Ask the Revelator
A book of the seven seals
Well who art worthy, thousands cried holy
Bound for some, Son of our God
Daughter of Zion, Judah the Lion
He redeemeth, and bought us with his blood
[Repeat verses 1 & 2]
John the Revelator, great advocator
Get’s ’em on the battle of Zion
Lord, tellin’ the story, risin’ in glory
Cried, “Lord, don’t you love some I”
[Repeat verses 1 & 2]
Well Moses to Moses, watchin’ the flock
Saw the bush where they had to stop
God told Moses, “Pull off your shoes”
Out of the flock, well you I choose
[Repeat verses 1 & 2]

http://www.allmusic.com/song/john-the-revelator-mt0000506899

The Son House version:

Delta blues musician Son House recorded several a cappella versions of John the Revelator in the 1960s. His lyrics for a 1965 recording explicitly reference three theologically important events: the Fall of Man, the Passion of Christ, and the Resurrection.

Son House – John The Revelator (a capella):

Son House version lyrics:

[call] Who’s that writin’? [response] John the Revelator
Tell me who’s that writin’? John the Revelator
Tell me who’s that writin’? John the Revelator
Wrote the book of the seven seals
[call] Who’s that writin’? [response] John the Revelator
Tell me who’s that writin’? John the Revelator
Well who’s that writin’? John the Revelator
Wrote the book of the seven seals
You know God walked down in the cool of the day
Called Adam by his name
And he refused to answer
Because he’s naked and ashamed
[Repeat verses 1 & 2]
You know Christ had twelve apostles
And three he led away
He said, “Watch with me one hour,
’till I go yonder and pray.”
[Repeat verses 1 & 2]
Christ came on Easter morning
Mary and Martha came down to see
He said, “Go tell my disciples
To meet me in Galilee.”
[Repeat verses 1 & 2]

A fantastic clip of Son House doing John The Revelator (the song starts at 8:18 but you should really watch the entire video!):

Son House – John The Revelator (live audio):

“One of the most powerful songs in all of pre-war acoustic music, “John The Revelator” is Blind Willie Johnson’s masterpiece, and the song has been hugely influential to blues performers. Johnson’s vocal is terrifying – “Who’s that a-ridin’?/John the revelator” is repeated like a mantra, and the superb guitar playing and eerie female vocal in the background just adds to the sense of dread and foreboding. Heavy in biblical allegory, the song is one of the most literate of all blues songs, but it is Johnson’s vocal – a cross between Tom Waits and Charley Patton’s – that dominates. One of the highlights of the Anthology of American Folk Music.”
Thomas Ward (Allmusic)

There are a lot of artists/bands that have done their take on this fabulous song, I have picked a few of my favourites.

Tom Waits – John The Revelator. Taken from the album God don’t never change – The songs of Blind Willie Johnson

The eleven-track album features inspired interpretations of the iconic slide guitarist/vocalist’s most seminal material. Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Cowboy Junkies, The Blind Boys Of Alabama (accompanied by Jason Isbell), Sinéad O’Connor, Luther Dickinson with The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, Maria McKee, and Rickie Lee Jones all deliver deeply moving and highly personal reinventions of Johnson’s otherworldly “gospel blues” music.

Blind Willie Johnson recorded a total of 30 tracks for Columbia between 1927 and 1930, creating a priceless legacy. He created unforgettable music by marrying the gospel fervor of his vocals with the steely blues fire of his guitar. His songs were mostly traditional or came from hymnals, but when Johnson performed them, his soul-shaking voice and amazing slide guitar transformed each one into something wholly original.

Nick Cave singing John the Revelator by Blind Willie Johnson. This is from one of the classic Hal Willner concerts that took place in 1999 and 2001:

Sam Moore – John The Revelator (the best 2 minutes from Blues Brothers 2009):

– Hallgeir

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