Blind Willie Johnson

I keep returning to Aaron Sorkin’s writing for The West Wing.

“Voyager, in case it’s ever encountered by extraterrestrials, is carrying photos of life on Earth, greetings in 55 languages, and a collection of music, from Gregorian chants to Chuck Berry, including ‘Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground’ by ’20s bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, whose stepmother blinded him at seven by throwing lye in his eyes, after his father beat her for being with another man. He died penniless of pneumonia after sleeping bundled in wet newspapers in the ruins of his house that burned down, but his music just left the Solar System.”

This is Sorkin at his best. Craftsmanship I aspire to reach. Assonance (“from chants to Chuck”, “beat her for being”, “lye in his eyes”). In this scene Josh he does for the purpose of securing more funding for NASA.

“His music just left the solar system.” Wow.

If you’re vaugely familiar with 1970s space probe Voyager, I think this little soliloquy will stir your heart:

These two lines are spoken by Josh Lyman, the hard-working, childdizzyteenager White House Deputy Chief of Staff that frequently serves as the emotional center of the show. It is no surprise he serves as a vessle to reflect on the poetic mertis of space exploration.

Sure, it’s maybe too sweet, and perhaps that’s why Josh feels the need to comment on Alex Moreau’s with a more down-to-earth way.

Alex Moreau: Everything, every atom in our bodies, comes from exploding stars. I guess Joni Mitchell was right: “We are stardust”.
Josh Lyman: Or, put another way, nuclear waste.

Taking something tragic (and unfortunately a too-common experience of many humans) and turning it into magic, exloding the human experience into the solar system and beyond.

White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler frequently makes references to

To end, here is Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground by Blind Willie Nelson. You’re listening to it on earth, but It continues towards the unchartered stars.

“in case it’s ever encountered …” Obviously, not “discovered and researched upon”. Or “discovered and then interaction with humanity”. And Willie dies.

There’s no salvation for him within the universe of Sorkin’s text. Neither Josh or Sorkin lament the society that didn’t prevent the abuse of infant Willie and abandoned him to die alone and homeless. There shall be no politics uttered here.

But it does resurrect Willie in poetry; “his music just left the solar system”.

To end, here is Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground by Blind Willie Johnson:

Lightspeed Engineering hosts essays, notes, and scribbles on design, philosophy, and science written by Pelle Beckman. See the Info page for details. I'm occasionally on Mastodon