Jacob is a Co- Coordinator of the Montgomery Healthcare RIghts Committee and a PA Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival Theo-Musicologist.
December 21, 2019, I was fortunate enough to join the Lancaster County Homeless Union and Put People First PA Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee for their part in the national vigil for our homeless siblings lost this past year. The date marks the official beginning of winter and the longest night of the year, one of the harshest and most arduous nights any one can face on the street.
I sang a few songs and spoke about why it’s important we sing together, but as we were listening to folks and bearing down on the brutality of the system that denies housing, healthcare, food, water – and all of our other basic needs as human rights – I felt moved to share a bit about this song, Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground. It is a song, chosen to rest on the Voyager Golden Record, because it haunts the listener with the worry that only comes from not knowing where you can rest yourself during the night ahead.
Blind Willie Johnson was homeless off and on throughout his life, because of his blindness meant he couldn’t work a regular job. He learned to play guitar and to preach in order to earn enough to feed and house himself. He was a foundational bluesman and one who lived a life of relative obscurity. He died young, in his fifties, after a rogue fire spread to his shack and burned it to the ground. Unable to go anywhere alone, and unfairly infirm from a life harder than anyone deserves to live, he squatted in the burnt out remains of his former home, until he caught pneumonia and died.
Decades later, this song was chosen by the team responsible for the information about humanity to be placed on the Golden Record. As Timothy Ferris, one of the NASA scientists put it, “Johnson’s song concerns a situation he faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight.”
What a miserable, sad thing to include on an eternal testament to humanity. Imagine the shame, if some other intelligent life, kinder than us, were to find the record someday and decided to visit? Would they find us, now able to house every soul on this earth, still denying that – killing our families in this broken system?
I hope not.