Rebirth of the Cool: John the Revelator

This is the first installment of what may become a regular feature focusing on covers or different takes on a single song.

One of the much bandied about cliches of modern music is that the devil gets all the good music. But anyone who has delved into the different forms of sacred music knows that that is a very arguable statement. (There is some damn fine gospel music out there, and the gospel influence can be heard in some of today’s more exciting bands, like The Builders and the Butchers.)

I would posit the theory that the best music is performed by those whose ultimate fate (if one is given to beliefs of the spiritual) remains in question. Take the blues classic “John the Revelator” as an example. The first noted recording of the song was recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1930. While he played in the blues style and has been covered by artists such as Led Zeppelin, the White Stripes and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, all of Johnson’s lyrical content centered on the sacred, and he was known to preach to anyone who might listen.


Blind Willie Johnson - John the Revelator


While Johnson’s take on this old call-and-response field song is compelling, due in no small part to his gravelly voice, the song became a different beast in the hands of Son House. House held early dreams of becoming a preacher, but was ulitmately more compelled by the blues music that the church stood firmly against. He served time at Parchman Farm prison for murder and was later publicly berated by Howlin’ Wolf for his problems with alcohol. House’s version of the song is haunting, especially in this filmed performance.



In his 2007-2008 live shows, A.A. Bondy travelled his own road with “John the Revelator”. While the use of religious imagery in Bondy’s songwriting is often cited, his take on the Revelator steers the story in a more secular direction. Yet, in Bondy’s version, the apocalyptic side of the Book of Revelation seems closer than ever.


AA Bondy - Live at The Waldron - 8/12/08

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