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Origins: Dark Was the Night (Blind Willie Johnson)

Mescal 23 Apr 09 - 07:04 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 23 Apr 09 - 08:16 PM
Joe Offer 24 Apr 09 - 02:01 AM
Joe Offer 24 Apr 09 - 02:50 AM
Q (Frank Staplin) 24 Apr 09 - 01:49 PM
Joe Offer 25 Apr 09 - 10:38 PM
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Subject: Dark Was the Night
From: Mescal
Date: 23 Apr 09 - 07:04 PM

Does anyone have lyrics for "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" -- which of course Willie Johnson recorded as a moan in the late 1920s? I understand it was a Wesleyan hymn from the late 1700s. Are those lyrics still around, in hymn books maybe? Also I've seen this title on an old recording, which I never heard, maybe a southern gospel or black gospel record.

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Subject: Lyr Add: DARK IS THE NIGHT (F. Crosby/T. Perkins)
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 23 Apr 09 - 08:16 PM

(Fanny Crosby and Theodore Perkins, 1894)

Dark is the night and cold the wind is blowing,
Nearer and nearer comes the breakers' roar;
Where shall I go, or whither fly for refuge?
Hide me, my Father, till the storm is o'er.

With His loving hand to guide, let the clouds above me roll,
And the billows in their fury dash around me.
I can brave the wildest storm, with His glory in my soul,
I can sing amidst the tempest- Praise the Lord!

Dark is the night but cheering is the promise,
He will go with me o'er the troubled wave;
Safe He will lead me through the pathless waters,
Jesus, the mighty One, and strong to save.
Dark is the night, but lo! the day is breaking,
Onward my bark, unfurl thy every sail,
Now at the helm I see my Father standing,
Soon will my anchor drop within the veil.


Probably the origin of Willie Johnson's song. Not the only "Dark Is the Night," however, so I am not sure of this.

First printed in a Sankey hymnbook, 1894.

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Subject: Lyr Add: DARK WAS THE NIGHT (Thomas Haweis)
From: Joe Offer
Date: 24 Apr 09 - 02:01 AM

There's a YouTube video of Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.

I found a some interesting quotes about the song:
    Ry Cooder has infamously termed this song "the most soulful, transcendent piece of American music recorded in the 20th Century," and it's hard to argue. "Dark" is an unspeakably mournful evocation of an 18th century hymn that includes the preacher's singing followed by the congregation answering in song, as replicated on an acoustic slide guitar.
    emusic Magazine

    Possibly his most well-known piece today is the free-form guitar impersonation of a congregation moaning "Dark Was The Night And Cold The Ground", which was used in its original form in Pasolini's film The Gospel According To Saint Matthew and adapted by Ry Cooder as the theme music to Paris, Texas.
    Source: Encyclopedia of Popular Music, quoted at

    In Lawrence Cohn's book "Nothing but the Blues", one can find a rather unlikely history of the composition and later arrangement of this song. In Cohn's book, there is a section called "The Gospel Tradition" that was researched and written by Mark A. Humphrey. Thomas Haweis was an English physician and clergyman who wrote this song and hundreds of other hymns. Its original title was "Gethsemane" and was published in a book of hymns dated 1792. It is among the many hymns that were taught to American Negro slaves in the 1800's by British missionaries.

I think this may be the original song:

Dark Was the Night

Dark was the night, and cold the ground
On which the Lord was laid;
His sweat like drops of blood ran down;
In agony he prayed.

"Father, remove this bitter cup,
If such Thy sacred will;
If not, content to drink it up
Thy pleasure I fulfill."

Go to the garden, sinner, see
Those precious drops that flow;
The heavy load He bore for thee;
For thee he lies so low.

Then learn of Him the cross to bear;
Thy Father's will obey;
And when temptations press thee near,
Awake to watch and pray.

The tune is Richmond (click), which doesn't sound like the Blind Willie Johnson song to me - but I have a hard time tying moans to their original songs.

There's an extensive study of the song at

Oh, and take a listen to this YouTube Recording by the Kronos Quartet.

Also take a look at American Negro Folk Songs, page 105.

You'll hear two samples of other singers singing this song on a Folkways recording here (click)


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Subject: RE: Origins/lyrics: Dark Was the Night
From: Joe Offer
Date: 24 Apr 09 - 02:50 AM

In searching for information on this song, I came across some fascinating sample recordings at Take a listen to the RealAudio recordings on the second album.
I'd call it "hymn-lining," but there's nobody lining out the hymn. Is is just called a "moan" then?

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Subject: RE: Origins/lyrics: Dark Was the Night
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 24 Apr 09 - 01:49 PM

The Thomas Haweis hymn posted by Joe obviously is the source hymn, not the Crosby-Perkins one which I posted.

The first verse appears in Black folk collections going back to 1900, so Willie Johnson would have been aware of versions of the hymn.

The 'Richmond' tune given at the site used by Joe is an arrangement by Martin Shaw; it seems to differ from the one in "The Bristol Tune-Book, a Manual of Tunes and Chants" (pub. Novello et al., London, c. 1890).

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Subject: RE: Origins/lyrics: Dark Was the Night
From: Joe Offer
Date: 25 Apr 09 - 10:38 PM

Listening to the Blind Willie Johnson recording again, I think I can hear the hymn tune (RICHMOND) underneath it, but maybe I'm imagining. Johnson's recording is certainly tied to the two versions on the Folkways link. The recordings on the Scott Sandvik link are of the same style (I couldn't find Sandvik's recording of "Dark" online).
My question is, what do you call this style? Is this what you call a "moan"?
It's very similar to what the congregation sings in hymn-lining, quite far removed from the standard tune for the hymn.


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