While the lyrics of all of his songs were religious, his music drew from both sacred and blues traditions. Among musicians, he is considered one of the greatest slide or bottleneck guitarists, as well as one of the most revered figures of depression-era gospel music. His music is distinguished by his powerful bass thumb-picking and gravelly false-bass voice, with occasional use of a tenor voice.
Blind Willie Johnson was born in 1897 near Brenham, Texas (before the discovery of his death certificate, Temple, Texas had been suggested as his birthplace). When he was five, he told his father he wanted to be a preacher, and then made himself a cigar box guitar. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried soon after her death.
It is thought that Johnson was married twice, first to a woman with the same first name, Willie B Harris, and later to a young singer named Angeline, who was the sister of blues guitarist L.C. Robinson. No marriage certificates have yet been discovered. As Angeline Johnson often sang and performed with him, the first person to attempt to research his biography, Samuel Charters, made the mistake of assuming it was Angeline who had sung on several of Johnson's records. However, later research showed that it was Johnson's first wife.
Johnson was not born blind, and, although it is not known how he lost his sight, Angeline Johnson provided the following account to Samuel Charters. She said when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man. The stepmother then picked up a handful of lye and threw it, not at Willie's father, but into the face of young Willie.
Johnson remained poor until the end of his life, preaching and singing in the streets of Beaumont, Texas to anyone who would listen. A city directory shows that in 1944, a Rev W J Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, Beaumont, Texas. This is the same address listed on Blind Willie's death certificate. In 1945, his home burned to the ground. With nowhere else to go, Johnson lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a wet bed. He lived like this until he contracted pneumonia two weeks later, and died. (The death certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever, with syphilis as a contributing factor.) In a later interview his wife said she tried to take him to a hospital but they refused to admit him because he was black, while other sources report that, according to Johnson's wife, his refusal was due to his blindness. Although there is some dispute as to where his grave is, members of the Beaumont community have committed to finding the site and preserving it.
His father would often leave him on street corners to sing for money, where his powerful voice left an indelible impression on passers-by. Legend has it that he was arrested for nearly starting a riot at a New Orleans courthouse with a powerful rendition of "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down", a song about Samson and Delilah. According to Samuel Charters, however, he was simply arrested while singing for tips in front of a Custom House, by a police officer who misconstrued the title lyric and mistook it for incitement.
Johnson made 30 commercial recording studio record sides in five separate sessions for Columbia Records from 1927–1930. On some of these recordings Johnson uses a fast rhythmic picking style, while on others he plays slide guitar. According to a reputed one-time acquaintance, Blind Willie McTell (1898 - 1959), Johnson played with a brass ring, although other sources cite him using a knife. The only known photograph of Johnson does not reveal any fretting instrument.
Some of Johnson's most famous recordings include "In My Time of Dying" (identified as "Jesus Make up My Dying Bed" on his recordings), his rendition of the famous gospel song "Let Your Light Shine On Me", as well as the raw, powerful "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground", where he sings in wordless hum and moans about the crucifixion of Jesus. This song was a "moaning" piece related to the Bentonia school of blues practiced by such "eerie voiced" artists as Skip James and Robert Johnson.
On 14 of his recordings he is accompanied by Willie B Harris or an as-yet-unidentified female singer This group of recordings includes "Church I'm Fully Saved Today", "John the Revelator" (a cover of which is featured on the soundtrack of Blues Brothers 2000, sung by Taj Mahal), "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond", and "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning".