Airs Friday, February 6, at 10 p.m. Despite disability, poverty, isolation and prejudice, a surprising number of blind African American musicians who came from the gospel tradition influenced not just gospel music, but blues, bluegrass, and American vernacular music up to and beyond rock and roll. Using narrative, archival audio, interviews, scholarly commentary and music, Heavenly Sight tells this little known story through broadcast and a comprehensive, interactive web site.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, blind African American gospel musicians tended to come out of two broad sources: institutions including segregated schools for the blind, and the itinerant rural songster tradition. The Blind Boys of Alabama and Ray Charles epitomize successful performers who came from institutions. Their path is paralleled, in a limited way, by the career of Blind Willie Johnson, a best-selling gospel singer and guitarist who predated them. He points the story in another direction—the rural Southern countryside, where African American gospel singing had its roots. Heavenly Sight explores the music that evolved from these two distinct sources, and looks at how these two musical streams influenced the direction of American music. We spotlight lesser-known performers like Flora Molton—who survived by singing on the streets of Washington DC and became an anti-war activist--and Reverend Gary Davis whose “holy blues” influenced Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan. Heavenly Sight ranges beyond the music to tell stories about the everyday lives of these performers. David Bromberg recalls the sometimes-harrowing task of assisting Reverend Davis: “..his guitars were constantly being stolen from him. As soon as he woke up, the first thing he did was draw a pistol.” The story of Blind Willie Johnson takes us into the future. Years after his death, his iconic “Dark was the Night” went into space on the Voyager probe's Golden Record, an obscure blind black man's music representing the human race.