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The Stories of Blind Willie Johnson & Billie Holiday


This week on The Blues, you're in for a treat, Saturday night at 11pm, October 10th. I spoke with Gary Golio, an award-winning author who writes books for children about famous musicians like Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix which was a New York Times bestseller. On this special, you'll hear about two of his other books.

The first about Blind Willie Johnson, Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson's Journey to the Stars and the other about Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song.

There'll be songs from both, along with Nina Simone's version of “Strange Fruit,” a song by Sonny Rollins, plus an interview with John Coltrane by Carl-Erik Lindgren during one of Trane's tours with Miles Davis.

Gary Golio begins the conversation talking about how his journey of telling the stories of musicians through children's books began. Reading Harry Shapiro & Caesar Glebbeek's book, Electric Gypsy, about Jimi Hendrix was the start of it all.

The backstory of Golio's book about Blind Willie Johnson's song, "Dark Was the Night," is really interesting. In 1977, the Voyager I space probe was going up with a gold-plated copper record. Here's a quote from NASA's website:

Pioneers 10 and 11, which preceded Voyager, both carried small metal plaques identifying their time and place of origin for the benefit of any other spacefarers that might find them in the distant future. With this example before them, NASA placed a more ambitious message aboard Voyager 1 and 2, a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials. The Voyager message is carried by a phonograph record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.”

One of the songs on that "Golden Record" was Blind Willie Johnson's, "Dark Was the Night." Golio reads from the back matter of his book about this record and talks about the book's illustrator, E.B. Lewis. You'll also hear that song along with others by Blind Willie Johnson.

Our special conversation continues with a discussion of Gary Golio's book about Billie Holiday's song "Strange Fruit" which was her signature song. He shares the story of Billie's career and the in-depth details of her performances of "Strange Fruit" at the Cafe Society club in NYC beginning in March, 1939. He also talks about the illustrator, Charlotte Riley-Webb.

The lyrics of the song are shown at the end of the book, but the book's meant to introduce kids to the power of art. I also asked him the relevance of this song in regards to today's Black Lives Matter movement. During this segment of the interview, you'll hear Billie Holiday's version of "Strange Fruit" as well as Nina Simone's, plus Billie's "I Cried For You."

Golio told me that his next children's book is about tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins which is coming out in 2021. Rollins celebrated his 90th birthday on September 7th, 2020, and is still sharp, yet continues to refuse to talk about music. You'll hear about the sabbatical Rollins took in 1959 when he was at the top of the jazz world.

The interview ends with a discussion of his book about John Coltrane, Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane's Spiritual Journey. Gary Golio talks about John Coltrane's life and receiving his first saxophone. Miles Davis kicked him out of his band until he got clean, so he went cold turkey at his mother's house in Philadelphia. He also talks about Trane's famous song, “Love Supreme” and Trane's spirituality. During this conversation, I also included an interview that Carl-Erik Lindgren and John Coltrane recorded during his last live performance with Miles Davis in Europe, spring, 1960, with audio captured on the album, The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series,Vol. 6.