Thommy Ford Reads

A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library

Thommy Ford’s Playlist—Track #7: “God Moves on the Water”

Welcome to our series highlighting the music we have here at Thomas Ford Memorial Library. Each week of 2013 we will discuss one of our favorite songs from the collection. Classical or Country, Hip-Hop or Heavy Metal, we’ll be blogging for every taste.

“God Moves on the Water” by Blind Willie Johnson

“God Moves on the Water” is track #6 on the second CD of The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (781.643 JOH)

Blind Willie Johnson was a gospel singer whose music is most often appreciated by fans of delta blues. His songs definitely have much of the raw energy of early blues, but there’s also a powerful ethereal quality to them. The prime example might be his instrumental “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground”, a slow, moody slide guitar piece accompanied by Willie’s wordless humming and howling. It’s a legendary performance, good enough to make it onto the greatest of all mix-tapes—it sits just between a traditional Indian Raga and a Beethoven string quartet on the golden records NASA sent into space with Voyagers 1 & 2.

I think his 1928 recording “God Moves on the Water” is just as good, though to some it might seem marred by odd lyrical content. It tells the story of the Titanic, casting it as the work of a wrathful God. Sure, it probably seems a bit insensitive to some, and just plain historically inaccurate to others, but to me it’s as epic and tragic as something by Euripides, punished hubris and all:

Women had to leave their loved ones,
See for their safety
When they heard their loved ones doomed
hearts did almost break
God moves, God Moves
And the people had to run and pray

E.J. Smith was a mighty man
Built a boat that he couldn’t understand…
God Moves, God Moves
And the people had to run and pray

Johnson sings these lines in a voice that’s part gruff shout and part plaintive wail, occasionally breaking into wordless passages that are more heartbreaking than the lyrics. He’s accompanied by his own slide guitar work which is both accomplished and propulsive. It’s powerful stuff, and about as close an imitation of an angry God as you’ll get outside of death metal.

If you’re interested in American roots music, don’t pass Blind Willie Johnson by and don’t ignore this strange and moving song. Take a listen below and stop by the library to check out The Complete Blind Willie Johnson.

Review by Matthew

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This entry was posted on February 17, 2013 by in Blues, Music Review, Thommy Ford's Playlist and tagged , , , , .
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