Jesus is Coming Soon

Blind Willie Johnson, 1928

What was the pandemic of 1918? What was its impact on life in the United States? How did government officials respond to the flu?

Johnson refers to soldiers dying on the battlefield. What war was being fought in 1918? What was the impact of the pandemic on the war?

Johnson calls officials who closed schools and churches “nobles.” Why do you think he uses this word? Does the word choice suggest that he supports or opposes closing these institutions?

Compare and contrast Johnson’s recording with Jack White’s 2020 performance on Saturday Night Live. Why do you think White chose to perform the song? What message was he trying to send?

"Jesus is Coming Soon" performed by Blind Willie Johnson on The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, Columbia/Legacy © 1993.

Rights have not been secured for this song. Lyrics may be viewed here:

Texan Willie Johnson (1897–1945), blinded when he was seven years old, was a guitarist who performed gospel music in a blues style, sometimes referred to as gospel blues. All of his recorded songs, which were made between 1927 and 1930, take on the character of street preaching and include lyrics from or inspired by the Bible. His recordings were among the first gospel recordings to gain renown. They influenced many later blues and gospel musicians.

Blind Willie Johnson

In “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” Johnson’s famously deep and raspy voice preaches that God has warned people “to turn away from evil and seek the Lord and pray.” The warning, Johnson implores, was the influenza of 1918. Sometimes referred to as the Spanish Flu because of the common (though unproven) belief that the disease originated in Spain, the flu spread throughout the world in 1918 and 1919, infecting one third of the world’s population and killing 50 million people, including 675,000 people in the United States alone.

Lacking a vaccine and effective treatments, the best defense against the disease was prevention through isolation of infected or exposed people, avoidance of large gatherings, personal hygiene measures such as regular washing of hands, and cleaning of public spaces. In the United States, some local officials took stronger actions than others, closing churches and schools in the most extreme cases. Johnson refers to these measures in the song: “Well, the nobles said to the people, ‘You better close your public schools.’ / ‘Until the events of death has ended, you better close your churches too.’”

In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Jack White played the song on Saturday Night Live.


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