October’s local feature is the newest non-fiction picture book from member Gary Golio, Dark Was the Night. Gary tells the story of Blind Willie Johnson, a legendary Texas musician whose song “Dark Was the Night” was included on the Voyager I space probe’s Golden Record.
Learn more about Gary’s journey to publishing this book below!
1) You’ve written about many great musicians. When did you first learn about Willie Johnson, and how did his story end up becoming a manuscript?
Gary Golio (GG): As a devoted blues-lover, I’ve been hearing about Willie Johnson–and listening to his music–for many years. His song, “Dark Was the Night,” was featured in a West Wing episode (about outer space), and was integral to the soundtrack of the movie Paris, Texas (1984), by director Wim Wenders. When I read major articles by two Texas music journalists several years ago–about the search, by laymen and music historians alike, for the missing details of Willie’s life–I found myself caught up in his mystery. Here’s a man who was once celebrated in gospel churches and on popular 78 records during the 1930s, slipped into oblivion following his death, was rediscovered during the 60’s Folk Revival, and finally had his wordless song chosen for inclusion on Voyager I’s Golden Record. To me, that says something very powerful about the mysterious course of a human life, and how we never really know how and who we may influence one day. I think it’s a hopeful tale, especially for kids, and it shines a light on what Fame is or isn’t really about.
2) What are some of the ways you researched this book and the life of Willie Johnson?
GG: There are actually several books about Willie, written by people so devoted to his music that they traveled throughout Texas digging into census records, microfilm and newspaper archives, and photo collections, all in search of the great mystery: Who was Willie Johnson? One of these people, Shane Ford, even became a friend over the last few years as we corresponded, and it was through his efforts that a Texas historical marker was erected near the cemetery where Willie is believed to be buried. But Willie’s grave was unknown and unmarked primarily because he was a black man in 1945, blind since the age of 7 or 8, and perhaps (from what his wife said) even denied treatment as he was dying due to his race and disability. So his story isn’t just about music history, or the blues, but the very real effects of racism and prejudice during the time he lived, and his songs reflect that. To Willie, life was hard, and his “salvation”–not just spiritually, but day-to-day, was his faith. And so a lot of my time working on Dark Was the Night was also spent listening to Willie himself talk about life, through his songs. For me, that’s the best source of information about this man.
3) Are there any interesting bits of history or things you learned about his life you wish could have made it into the story?
GG: Yes, there is a story that I find both funny and telling. It has to do with Willie singing out on the street as he often did, in New Orleans, in front of the Custom House there. The song was “If I had My Way, I’d Tear this Building Down,” about the Biblical hero Samson tearing down the temple. Well, whatever Willie’s reason for singing this particular song in front of a government office, reports are that he may have also been arrested–for almost inciting a riot! Such is the power of music.
4) What has it been like to launch your book during a pandemic?
GG: Aside from not having an actual “launch” party at my favorite local bookstore (Village, in Pleasantville), or at Books of Wonder (where I always sign in NYC), or being able to visit local libraries with the book itself, it’s not really that different. I’ve done my promotions by email as I usually do, had a good many radio and newspaper interviews (on the phone, from home), and continually post happenings related to the book (starred reviews, etc.) on Facebook. What’s missing, of course, is the interaction with the public, with kids and families, and having conversations–in person–with interested and interesting people. But this, too, will come again. ; ]
5) Who are some writers you admire or draw inspiration from?
GG: When it comes to children’s books, I’ve a deep spot in my heart for When Marian Sang, by Pam Munoz Ryan; To Fly (about the Wright Brothers), by Wendie Old; Coming on Home Soon, by Jacqueline Woodson, and several other nonfiction/bio children’s writers. As a long-time visual artist (and one-time landscape painter), I’m also very inspired by the work of the many great children’s illustrators we all know: Javaka Steptoe, Rudy Gutierrez, Charlotte Riley-Webb, Ed Young, E.B. Lewis, and James Ransome. And I’ve been very lucky to have done some beautiful books with these beautiful people!
Where to find Gary: