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Pale blue dot

NBC / Lorne Michaels Productions
Steve Martin as Cocuwa the psychic in a 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – It was 41 years ago today that NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft took a photo of both the Earth and the Moon – together – (at the urging of Cosmos host and turtlenecked scientist Carl Sagan) when the “golden record”-toting probe was more than 7 million miles away from Earth.

And as many know, the resulting photograph of our planet and neighboring satellite demonstrated just how small we are, against the infinite scope of the universe. The resulting photo was nicknamed the “Pale Blue Dot.” Why? Because for all the hullaballoo we like to put out there and say about ourselves, we are really just floating around space, like a bit of cosmic dandruff. Puts things in perspective, don’t it?

It’s odd that this came up today (as Space.com’s Twitter feed reminded us, on Sept. 18, 1977, this is what happened), as I was doing a little research on rock n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, whose song “Johnny B. Goode” had been included on the Voyager 1 & 2 Golden Records.

Recall that an April 22, 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live, just a matter of months after Voyager 1 & 2 had been launched into space, actor/comedian/SNL regular Steve Martin did a bit where he played a psychic named Cocuwa has accurately predicted the cover of Time magazine for the past two years.

This was the same episode where Dan Aykroyd (with a lifelong interest in UFOs and the paranormal) and Jean Curtin give a Weekend Update update and noted the following: “Believed to have been dead for the past five years, Lyndon Johnson this week paid a surprise visit to Jimmy Carter at the White House. Aging and white-haired, but looking remarkably fit, the former president said his death in 1973 was just a hoax. He then flew off to Missouri to visit Harry Truman.

And very soon I will be in Missouri – visiting Harry S. Truman’s birthplace (Lamar, Mo.) and resting place (Independence, Mo.), which is, coincidentally, the same place the early Mormon pioneers thought that the Garden of Eden (apple sync!) had been located. Cocuwa also claimed the Pope was cloned, odd in light of a story circulating this week about a rap performer - Kid Buu - claiming he is a clone.

Anyway, Cocuwa claimed that the Time magazine cover would feature a message from extraterrestrials - who listened to the Golden Record - and replied to Earth - SEND MORE CHUCK BERRY. (Steve Martin was born in Waco, Texas - not far from Blind Willie Johnson's hometown of Pendleton, Texas - on August 14, 1945, just a month prior to Blind Willie Johnson's death. And Steve Martin was born 27 years to the day before I was. Recall Martin's role in the film The Jerk where he played Navin R. Johnson, the adopted white son of African-American sharecroppers.)

In addition to that 1955 hit song (that was performed by Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in 1985’s Back to the Future), the old gospel-blues hymn “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” – recorded as an absolutely chill-inducing folk-blues number by Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson on Dec. 3, 1927 in Dallas, Texas (33 degrees of latitude) – was also included on the Voyager 1 spacecraft record, which included other songs and sounds of Earth. (I note it in my Feb. 2015 Dust Devil Dreams post "To the stars"). 

But Johnson’s version of “Dark Was the Night” simply featured him playing slide guitar accompanied by his ghostly, moaning hum. Sagan was reportedly heard saying that Blind Willie Johnson’s version was included because it “concerns a situation Johnson – and humanity – faced many times: ‘Nightfall with no place to sleep.’”

Indeed. Two-and-a-half years ago, Financial Times reporter David Cheal wrote an article about Blind Willie Johnson and the story behind his most famous - and now cosmic - song, recorded in Dallas prior to the Great Depression, by a man blinded by his wicked stepmother when he was only a child.

Cheal writes: “’Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’remains his finest few minutes, and although, as Sagan pointed out, it is a very earthbound song, it has an ethereal quality that seems to make it appropriate for the vastness of space. The crackliness of the recording only adds to its sense of remoteness."

And Blind Willie Johnson would make his way (following the Trinity River) from Dallas (33 degrees) down to Beaumont, Texas (94 degrees longitude) and would live out the remainder of his life there performing at churches and other places until September 1945, shortly after the end of World War II and the testing of the atomic bomb at the Trinity Site in New Mexico and the dropping of two atomic bombs on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. It was that month that Blind Willie's house burned down. Already in poor health at age 48, and with no hospital in the Beaumont area willing to take him, Blind Willie Johnson would contract malarial fever and ultimately die in the ruins of his burned out Beaumont house on this very date- Sept. 18, 1945 - 73 years ago. His famous song seemed to predict his fate, sadly enough. 

And yet the same date, 32 years later, Voyager 1, containing his version of the gospel-blues song "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" was 7 million miles from Blind Willie's home planet, soon to be bathed in Saturn's mystic rays and beyond the infinite.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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