This song appears to be an original composition of Blind Willie Johnson, although it is important to acknowledge the following about such songs:
Despite the fact that many, many thousands of songs were recorded in the 1920s and 30s, we do not always know if a song is an original just because there is only one recording of it.
The originality imbued in the performance, and the nature of Johnson's tradition - where musicians played both secular and sacred material, improvising freely from a mental storehouse of "floating verses" common to all - means that this song is original. Other versions of these verses and this refrain likely existed, but Johnson made them his own.
Another guitar playing street preacher, Reverend Gary Davis, contended that his songs were not his creation, they were "revealed" to him. It is entirely possible that Blind Willie Johnson created songs like this in a similar fashion, in prayerful contemplation of his faith.
In any case, here at The Rhapsody Project, we respect people's traditions and communities, and therefore start with an acknowledgement that Willie Johnson's recordings reflect his Christian faith.
It is also vital to acknowledge that, despite the various facts we know about Johnson's life, we know far too little about how he thought about his singing, guitar playing, composition methods, or any other dimension of his powerful creativity. This article details some of the efforts researchers made to learn more about Johnson, and his ultimate un-know-ability emerges as a theme.
What we have is the recordings he made between 1927 and 1930 (when he recorded 'Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right' in Atlanta, GA), and various accounts from family members and romantic partners that are conflicting.
We do know that, while his accompanists were not credited on his records, Johnson chose to present his songs with partners such as Willie B. Harris singing along on multiple recordings, suggesting that he saw his music as a vehicle for community, rather than a showcase for his musical prowess. Johnson would play solo in the streets, a tin can hanging from the neck of his guitar where people could pay for the gift of hearing him live.
In celebrating this song, and Johnson's artistry, we invite you reflect on the lyrics, the lessons of Johnson's inspiring life, the power and conviction of his singing, and the beautiful counterpoint of both Willie Harris' singing and Johnson's guitar playing heard on this recording.
If you aren't a musician, we invite you to celebrate the song by making another form of art, taking inspiration from the lyrics (printed below) or any of these themes:
Please upload your version of the song, or the art you make, and tag @therhapsodyproject along with #RhapsodyAdventurers in your post!
‘Everybody ought to treat a stranger Right’
Blind Willie Johnson & Willie B. Harris, 1930
Everybody ought treat a stranger right, long ways from home,
Everybody ought to treat a stranger right, a long way from home.
Careful o' how you treat a stranger, by belying you'll turn him away,
Well, be feared that you may obtain it, when you drive him from your gate.
Well, be mindful that you're speaking, be careful how you go along,
You must always treat a stranger right, don't insult him in your home.
Well, all of us down here are strangers, none of us have no home,
Don't never hurt, oh, your brother, and cause him to pull his own.
Well, Christ came down as a stranger. He didn't have no home.
Well, he was cradled in the manger, an oxen kept him warm.
Well, the wise men found a stranger, well the child was one day old,
They careful in all of their treatments, when they offered him gifts of gold.