Music critic Thomas Ward described “John the Revelator” as “one of the most powerful songs in all of pre-war acoustic music … [which] has been hugely influential to blues performers.” Indeed, ever since Blind Willie Johnson first recorded the track, in 1930, it has been a staple of the genre.
The tune refers to John of Patmos, also known as John the Divine, who penned the biblical Book of Revelation, and it references passages from the book, especially the breaking of the seals and the resulting apocalyptic events. In a later version released by Son House, other Bible passages are referenced, including the fall of man from Genesis, the Passion of Christ, and the Resurrection.
As blues was the inspiration for rock-and-roll, and “John the Revelator” is one of the most powerful blues tunes, it should be included in any list of the most influential songs of the 20th century. Unfortunately, due to the low quality of the 1930 audio and Blind Willie Johnson’s gravelly voice, which gives Tom Waits a run for his money, the original — featured above — is often overlooked, but the tune has been kept alive by a handful of stellar recordings made by various artists over the years.
Son House made several a capella recordings of “John the Revelator” in the 1960s, and is largely responsible for the renewed interest in Johnson’s work. In this 1965 recording he modified the lyrics to focus on other sections of the Bible, which are not from Revelation. This plays on the tradition that John the Apostle and John of Patmos were the same person, with the addition of events from John’s Gospel.
The track is sung with no accompaniment but the clapping of Son’s hands. A singing solo adds an eerieness to the tune that further emphasizes the seriousness of the predictions of the end of the world from Revelation.
Curtis Stigers & The Forest Rangers
Curtis Stigers’ song “This Life” was used as the intro theme for the 2008 television show Sons of Anarchy. The creators liked Stigers so much they asked him to cover “John the Revelator” specifically for the Season 1 finale. The song is played as though from a smoke-filled roadhouse and features a blues slide guitar that would have made Blind Willie smile.
The theme of impending doom suited the series well, as it was about a motorcycle gang that was always having run-ins with the law and rival gangs. Here the song is used almost as a prophetic herald signaling that a character was about to die. If only the characters could hear the backtrack.
The Blues Brothers
The Blues Brothers 2000 was a spectacular flop that, without the presence of John Belushi, captured very little of the spirit of the first movie. What they did get right, however, was the music, thanks to some really wonderful arrangements by Paul Shaffer.
This rendition features a full gospel choir and a lead singer with a great tenor voice. Halfway through they switch to a double time that has an excellent energy. While the fast tempo is a great opportunity to show off technical brilliance, it also gives the impression of frantic running around on the Judgment Day.
The master of progressive rock used Blind Willie’s voice mixed into his arrangement to create a much harder version of the blues tune, while keeping aspects of the original. This version uses distortion and a round of voices to add a feeling of dread over the coming end of days and, of course, features Vai’s unfathomable guitar technique in solos.
Steve Vai has been a long-time fan of Blind Willie Johnson and the blues. In the 1986 movie Crossroads, starring Ralph Macchio — about an old blues musician who sold his soul for musical talent and a young man who uses his own hard-earned talent to fight the devil and save his friend — Vai recorded all the guitar parts throughout the entire movie. From the classical and blues guitar licks Macchio pretends to play throughout the movie to the incredible guitar duel at the end, Vai plays it all, with a bit of help from Ry Cooder — although Macchio does good job looking like he’s playing.
It’s a pretty good movie, although hard to find. Here’s the guitar duel at the end. That’s Steve Vai playing Macchio’s nemesis. And yes, Macchio wins with a variation on Mozart.