Gary Golio is the author of the New York Times bestseller JIMI: Sounds Like a Rainbow – A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, winner of a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award; Bird & Diz and Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, both ALA Notables; and other books about legendary artists. A writer and musician, Golio has been featured on NPR’s “Weekend Edition”, CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning News,” and on radio stations nationwide. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife, children’s book author Susanna Reich.
Today, I’m thrilled to talk with the multi-talented Gary Golio about Dark Was the Night, his love for writing and art, his father’s influence in his life, and the power of music.
Welcome, Gary! To start off, can you tell readers about your journey with this Dark Was the Night from idea to publication?
A few years back I was listening to some early blues songs, and came upon Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night.” The song stunned me—and gave me the chills. I knew of Willie’s connection with the Voyager I space probe, but had no idea that blues aficionados and amateur music sleuths were devotedly digging for details of his life through the decades. So much mystery surrounded this man—revered by Jimmy Paige, Eric Clapton, and Lucinda Williams—but what intrigued me the most was that, after dying in poverty and being forgotten, Willie and his work enjoyed a revival of interest during the 1960s Folk Movement. Then, in 1978, “Dark Was the Night” ended up on Voyager‘s Golden Record, hurtling through space. And what that said to me is, you never know how a life, and its effect on others, will play out. It’s a hopeful message that inspired me to write the book.
Your father was an artist and you have worked as a fine-artist since you were a teenager. Can you talk about what inspired you to begin writing picture books? Did you always like to write?
My father is an ongoing inspiration in my life. He was a talented amateur artist who provided me with a real-life example of the Art Spirit by how he thought and created. Most importantly, he was a skilled improviser, and didn’t allow himself to be limited by what he didn’t have, something that’s always meant a lot to me. As for writing picture books, I mostly read comics as a boy, and I think it was that combination of pictures and text that really struck a chord. For me, the picture book is a modern descendant of cave painting, Egyptian wall art (images + hieoroglyphs), and Etruscan/Pompeian murals: using words and pictures to tell a story.
In your Author’s Note you talk about the dearth of knowledge about Willie Johnson’s life. Can you share one thing you learned about Willie that didn’t make it into the book?
Willie has a unique voice that somehow manages to balance the rough and the tender. There’s raw power there, but also delicacy, which is very rare. So Willie was in New Orleans at one point—during a recording session there in 1928—and the story goes that he began singing “If I Had My Way I’d Tear this Building Down” in front of the Customs House. A crowd had gathered, listening to him, and a police officer reportedly became so worried—thinking Willie was instigating a riot—that he considered arresting the man. That’s the power of music—to rouse, protest, and stir up human souls—and it’s easy to see why it threatens authority and institutions.
Dark Was the Night is your eighth biography of a musician or entertainer for children. Could you discuss what drew you to write about these musicians?
While there are no actual musicians in my family-of-origin, my parents, grandmother, and maternal aunt all had strong musical interests. Each exposed me to very specific genres and musical tastes—from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole (whom I adore), Willie Nelson, and Elvis Presley. Many of these people were Black, and many were strongly influenced by blues and jazz, and I have vivid memories of watching them on TV with my beloved grandmother, even at five and six years old. That openness to all kinds of music really shaped me, and growing up I looked for clues, in the lives of artists, that would help me find my own path and direction. So my books often focus on the early years of an artist’s/musician’s life, highlighting the roots of their artistry—what inspired and shaped them—to provide young readers with roadmaps, of sorts, to a life in the arts.
In addition to being an artist and writer, you also admit to being “a pretty good musician” – something you share with kids on school visits that sound awesome. Which instruments do you play and how do you incorporate music into your book events?
I play acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, banjo, and very simple piano, but love above all to improvise. Since my first book on Jimi Hendrix came out, I’ve used the guitar (both electric and acoustic) to demonstrate a wide range of effects and possibilities (Hendrix and Santana), but also to accompany singalongs I did for my Bob Dylan/Woody Guthrie book. At one school visit, the entire fifth grade and I sang “This Land is Your Land” in Spanish, which was both meaningful and fun.
Each of your books has such distinctive illustrations from incredible illustrators. Can you talk a little about E.B. Lewis’s gorgeous illustrations in Dark Was the Night and how he captured your story and Willie’s personality?
E.B. is truly a master of illustration, and specifically of the watercolor medium. His real superpower, however, lies in his ability to convey human feeling, to mysteriously imbue a person or setting with mood and life. That’s remarkable—reminiscent of watching my father draw an American Indian on horseback, straight out of his head—and it’s what lends E.B.’s work both its power and subtlety. Not surprisingly, he has a real love for human beings, a quality fed by his passion for traveling and teaching all over the world. Though we only met at a bookstore panel five years ago, Earl and I have become close friends, and spend a lot of time on the phone collaborating about the joining of text and image. He’s a pleasure to work with, and his art for Dark Was the Night is truly sublime. This book also gave him the chance to bring his use of color (in his own words) to another level, something that will be obvious to anyone who knows his artwork and sees the new images.
From your bio on your website, you sound as if you were a pretty inventive kid – creating all sorts of cool electronic devices. And I love your story about being “shocked” to find books with Van Gogh’s paintings in them as a child and how formative that was. Could you discuss the importance of nonfiction, and biographies in particular, to children?
My father could fix most anything, and it was that spirit of improvisation and inventiveness that led me to create little electronic gadgets a la James Bond and The Man from Uncle. For a time, I wanted to be an inventor or electrical engineer, but Art won out. As for van Gogh, watching Lust for Life with my dad had a HUGE impact on me, and seeing a book in the middle school library with all those paintings reproduced made it clear to me—even at 10 years old—that there was gold in reading about the lives of artists.
While I love fantasy, myth, and good stories, the thing about nonfiction is that you’re reading about real people—with all their talents and troubles—and so it’s easier to believe that if someone else muddled through to achieve something, you can also. That’s why I don’t shy away from talking about a person’s “faults” and failures (particularly in my books about John Coltrane and Billie Holiday), because I want kids to see that great people and artists are just as human as everyone else.
What’s up next for you?
Author-wise, I’ve a book coming out next year on the revered jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins (based on many phone conversations we’ve shared), to be illustrated by the great James Ransome. I’ve also sold, just this year, two new picture book texts: one on Roy DeCarava—a gifted artist who photographed the people of Harlem in all their humanity—and another on Walt Whitman, focused on his remarkable and moving nursing experience during the Civil War. After that, who knows where Destiny will lead me?
You can connect with Gary Golio on his website.
International Music Day Review
About the Holiday
International Music Day was established in 1975 by Lord Yehudi Menuhin, an American-born violinist and conductor – widely considered to be one of the great violinists of the 20th century – to promote the art of music across all segments of society and to apply the UNESCO ideals of peace and friendship among all people, with an exchange of experiences and mutual appreciation of all cultures and their aesthetic values. To celebrate today’s holiday, listen to your favorite music and take some time to discover a new style – it might just become a favorite too!
Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars
Written by Gary Golio | Illustrated by E.B. Lewis
As readers open the cover to Dark Was the Night, they discover a date: 1977. In this year Voyager I was shot into space carrying “a precious Golden Record, a message to the Universe from Planet Earth.” The record contained pictures of the people and things that make up our life, sounds we hear every day, music from Navajo chants and West African drumming to Beethoven and Chuck Berry. There was also one “ghostly song, about loneliness and the night….a tune of light and hope” from a blind man named Willie Johnson.
Who was Willie Johnson? In 1897, he was a newborn baby in a small Texas town wrapped in his mother’s love. narrator picks up the thread of Willie’s story when he’s become a small boy who “loved to sing” and play the cigar box guitar his father made him. But that joy was interrupted when “your mama died, and some light went out of your life.” Then at seven or eight, Willie became blind, “and that’s when things got darker still.” But Willie rose above these hurdles. His blindness didn’t keep him “from singing in church, or on street corners.” Using his voice to uplift people brought him “back in the light.”
He sang blues and learned how to play a slide by running the edge of a pocketknife along the steel strings of his guitar. “This made a sound like someone laughing or crying, as if the guitar had a voice of its own.” He traveled from town to town in Texas, wherever farmers came to socialize and shop, setting up on street corners and collecting the coins people tossed into his tin cup. Little by little, people grew to know his name. “Then a man from a music company heard you sing. You were given the chance to make a record….”
On that record listeners heard “the sound of one human being reaching out to all the others, telling them not to be afraid of the dark.” That first record was a hit, lauded for its unique sound. One song in particular, “Dark Was the Night,” “touched people deep in their souls” and made Willie “a shining star.” The light Willie brought to people has never dimmed; in fact it continues to shine through the darkness on Earth and through Space.
Back matter includes a discussion on what is known about Blind Willie Johnson and what still remains a mystery as well more information about Voyager I and why Johnson’s song Dark Was the Night was chosen for inclusion on the Golden Record. A link to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, where readers can access Voyager I—The Golden Record is also included.
Gary Golio’s ethereal tale of the life of Blind Willie Johnson and his song, which has touched and continues to move so many people, is a stirring tribute to a unique artist and the power of music to change lives. Golio’s use of the second person creates a poignant personal bond between the story and reader, which allows children to put themselves in Willie’s shoes and believe that they, too, can inspire others with their talent and life. Golio’s lyrical storytelling flows with the cadence of the blues, and his evocative vocabulary brings Willie Johnson’s voice and times fully to life for young readers.
E.B. Lewis transports readers to early 1900s Texas in his stunning watercolor paintings rendered in soft washes of grays, blues, and greens punctuated with yellows that reflect the hope and light that spurred Willie on and flowed from his music. As his mother holds him in her arms as a baby, the landscape outside the window blazes with gold that reflects on Willie’s and his mother’s face. As children learn about Willie’s blindness, the page turns dark, except for a swatch of light across Willie’s eyes, representational, perhaps, of his inner sight that sustained him.
Among the realistic depictions of his farm home, the outskirts of a Texas town seen from a train, and a bustling city, where Johnson plays on a street corner to an appreciative audience, his tin cup hanging from a tuner on his guitar, are transcendent images of Willie performing, his face always lifted to the light. As people gather around a radio listening to Blind Willie Johnson, light once again streams into the shop, and as Golio describes how “Dark Was the Night” becomes a hit, Willie is bathed in a golden glow, his face euphoric with the joy of singing.
At once sensitive, rousing, and inspirational, Dark Was the Night is a beautiful book about one man’s talent and dream that will resonate with all readers. The book is highly recommended for home libraries and is a must for school and public library collections.
Ages 5 – 8
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-1524738884
Discover more about Gary Golio and his books on his website.
To learn more about E.B. Lewis, his books, and his art, visit his website.
Listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night.”
International Music Day Activity
I Love Music! Word Search Puzzle
International Music Day celebrates all types of music and instruments. Can you find the eighteen different instruments in this printable word search puzzle?
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