I don’t know how or why I became fascinated with the lyrics of the old blues classic Nobody’s Fault But Mine. This was first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927, and it seems to be his reflection on his spiritual journey. Johnson was born in 1897, and there’s not much known about his upbringing in rural Texas until he emerged on the Delta blues scene in his twenties. His blindness wasn’t from birth, but it came as the result of an angry outburst from his step-mother toward his father, in which the lye solution she aimed at him accidentally splashed in the face of eight-year-old Willie. So, clearly, Willie wasn’t brought up in a neat little family whose favorite activity was going to church on Sunday morning. And yet, this song bases Willie’s sense of personal spiritual responsibility on his early religious heritage. In his memories of childhood, there are two facts he emphasizes:
I have a Bible of my own
My Momma taught me how to read
If I don’t read and my soul be lost,
Nobody’s fault but mine.
After recording a few of Willie’s songs in the late 1920s, the record company collapsed in the Great Depression, Willie’s career went into eclipse, and he died in poverty in another rural Texas town in 1945. The best source I found of the sketchy facts known about his life can be found here. His original recording of Nobody’s Fault But Mine can be heard here. In 1977, Led Zeppelin made a hit of their version, which omitted all the spiritual allusions that were so important to Willie. The best modern version I’ve found that seems to catch the message of the original, though in a different musical style, can be heard here.
Here’s my conclusion about Blind Willie Johnson’s testimony in song:
- He has a clear memory of a Bible being in his house during his early years, and he somehow learned to respect that Bible as God’s Word.
- Someone (he varies from verse to verse between his father, his mother and his sister) took the time to teach him to read (which probably implies that he didn’t have the opportunity to attend school). This learning to read must have taken place before the accident that led to his blindness, when he was eight years old.
So, Willie sees himself as a responsible moral agent even as an eight-year-old living in a very unjust world: Nobody’s fault but mine.
I think the phrase “If my soul be lost” implies that Willie was conscious of having strayed from the straight and narrow. Hopefully, he found a way to a mature relationship with God. Memories of his childhood awareness that God was speaking to him through the Bible could point the way, but his dysfunctional family didn’t give him an example of how God’s Word can be applied in real-life situations in the complexities of life. That he would have to discover for himself.
As we all must.
– Pastor George Van Alstine