Can you name the blind Black man whose music was recorded on a Golden Record called “The Sounds of Earth,” placed in a time capsule in 1977, and sent out of our solar system on Voyager I? No?
Here’s a book that gives the man, Willie Johnson, his due:
Instead of starting off with the subject as a child, the first spread provides context for the story we are about to read, something unusual for a picture book.
Even in the deep darkness of outer space,
there is light…
A science probe, strapped to a rocket, is shot into space.
Voyager I, bearing a precious Golden Record, a message
to the Universe from Planet Earth.
With pictures—of people, children, snowflakes, and sky.
With sounds—of thunder, crickets, whales, and the wind.
With music—of Navajo chants, Peruvian panpipes, West
African drumming, Beethoven, and even Chuck Berry.
And one ghostly song, about loneliness and the night.
A musician, playing his guitar and humming a tune of light
and hope to whoever might be listening. A human being,
reaching out to the stars.
A blind man named Willie Johnson.
Tell me that doesn’t make you want to turn the page! The rhythmic voice and hope-filled language of the author takes hold of me. And then I realize that I am reading the essence of the Blues, pain combined with hope, and those Blues are not pulling me down. They are leading me toward the light.
The next spread goes back in time to 1897, the year Willie Johnson was born. He was a boy who loved to sing, so his father made him a cigar box guitar. When Willie lost his mother and became blind before the age of eight, Willie didn’t let his blindness slow him down. He used his voice and a makeshift slide (a pocket knife) to create music that lifted people up. For a man who lived a hard life and died before the age of 50, it’s inspiring to think of his voice, his music still shining a light in the darkness of space and, as the author writes, finally touching the stars.
Back matter describes how little is known about Johnson’s life, but researchers continue to search for more details. There’s also a section about the Golden Record, Voyager I’s mission, and a short list of sources and resources for further reading.
I appreciate the fact that Carl Sagan, the astronomer, was thoughtful enough to ask a renowned music historian for recommendations to include on “The Sounds of Earth.”
And for your listening pleasure, the first song on this recording is “Dark Was the Night.” It gives me chills.
The illustrator for this book, E.B. Lewis, is one of my favorites. His watercolor illustrations are a little hazy, with large portions blurred, as if seen through the smudged lens of time. But they always contain light, no matter how dark the night.
Watch a cigar box guitar being built, and listen to the builder play it when he’s done.
Explore NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab website to find out more about Voyager I and the Golden Record.
Check out books illustrated by E.B. Lewis from your library. Read them and compare their illustrations. Talk about what makes his style distinctive. Does he do anything different, depending on the book’s subject matter.
The author chose to write this book in second person point of view, as if he’s writing this story to Willie Johnson. Discuss why you think he did this.
Title: Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars
Author: Gary Golio
Illustrator: E.B. Lewis
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House, 2020
Ages: K-4th grade
Themes: music, hope, Black history
I chose to feature this book today for Multicultural Children’s Book Day, an annual event that helps raise awareness around cultural diversity through children’s books.
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.