John the Revelator

The other day, when I was posting music by Lonnie Pitchford, I found another interesting song on the Harry Smith Connection album: a version of “John the Revelator” by Ethel Caffie.

At the risk of sounding ignorant, all I really knew about this song was that the White Stripes had covered it and I assumed it was a traditional blues or folk song. My original thought for today’s post was to post Caffie’s version alongside the White Stripes’ version. As I dug around a little, though, I learned more about the song. I also learned exactly who John the Revelator was.

By way of some background, I’ve pretty much lapsed in my church attendance and religious studies. If I have ever heard the name “John the Revelator” outside of the context of the song, I’ve long since forgotten.

So, for my fellow heathens, here’s today’s lesson: John the Revelator is/was St. John, one of Jesus’ Apostles. In addition to several other New Testament works, he also wrote the Book of Revelations. Hence, “Revelator.” Tradition holds that St. John was exiled to the island of Patmos where he received a vision of Christ. It was there that he wrote of his revelations.

Now, as far as the song, it is a traditional gospel/blues song. In the chorus, John is writing “the book of the seven seals.” As far as I could find, the earliest recorded version is from Blind Willie Johnson, dating to 1930. And after all that trouble, the White Stripes don’t even have a full version of the song; they just included part of it in their song “Cannon” from their debut disk.

Just from looking around, I know there are dozens of versions of “John the Revelator” out there. I read that both Beck and the Blues Brothers have covered it, but I couldn’t find those versions. Here are just some of the ones I enjoyed the most.

Cannon.mp3 ~ White Stripes
John the Revelator.mp3 ~ Blind Willie Johnson
John the Revelator.mp3 ~ Son House
John the Revelator.mp3 ~ Ethel Caffie
John the Revelator.mp3 ~ Gov’t Mule
John the Revelator.mp3 ~ Chicken Legs Weaver

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At 3:11 AM , Blogger a Tart said...

i love posts like these, and is there a blues song that Blind Willie Johnson didn't sing? wow! xoxo

At 7:56 PM , Blogger Pete said...

I finally got around to listening to these...gotta say I favored Son House's version. Until I heard Chicken Legs Weaver!


At 4:16 PM , Blogger Vleeptron Dude said...

oh uhhh it's Revelation -- singular. I made the same mistake and an authentic clergy guy whacked me on the knuckles.

The song is a "call and response" spiritual, and one of Son House's covers -- from the 1930s -- features his wife responding.

If you click into SeeqPod and search for "John the Revelator", this old version will pop up as


It's haunting, eery, gorgeous.

My favorite Son House tune is "Death Letter Blues."

Me and the folks on Earth and Planet Vleeptron are talking about Revelation, and William Blake's illustrations of it, at



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