Blind Willie Johnson, a quintessential old bluesman who created great music for the sake of great music, is widely believed to have been born in Temple. That he wasn't doesn't mean Bell County can't claim at least a part of the old gospel bluesman's considerable legacy. How much of that legacy we can claim is, like most of Johnson's life, an open question. In Blind Willie Johnson, we have an outstanding chance to judge the art and not the artist because the art survives but the biography is lost to time. The most common biographical information has him spending his early years in Temple, where his mother died when he was young. At age 5 he told his father he wanted to become a preacher, then he built a cigar box guitar and began learning to play the makeshift instrument. The story about how Willie was blinded has him at home when his father learned that his stepmother had been cheating on him. He beat her when he found out. In self-defense Willie's stepmother took a handful of lye and threw it at Willie's father, but she missed and the lye hit Willie in the eyes and blinded him. Other versions have the stepmother throwing the lye in Blind Willie's face on purpose. Neither version has ever been confirmed, but the story persists. Commercial success eluded Blind Willie, not that he ever seriously courted it. In an era where gospel singers often turned to a secular vein of the blues in order to get more higher-paying gigs, Blind Willie stayed true to his gospel roots, albeit with a slide guitar. His style has heavily influenced subsequent generations of musicians, including the likes of Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder. The only known picture of him shows him holding a guitar with a tin cup for tips on its neck. Austin writer Michael Corcoran spent months researching Johnson's life and tracking down leads on the mysteries and contradictions of his life. Mostly, he came up empty. The one thing that Corcoran knew when he started his Blind Willie odyssey is the most important fact, without which the details of his life would hold no real interest: the man played slide guitar as well as it has ever been played. "An instinctive virtuoso, Johnson made his guitar moan, slur and sing, often finishing lyrics for him, and throughout the years, Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ry Cooder, Duane Allman and many more have expressed a debt to this sightless visionary," Corcoran wrote. Most of the songs Blind Willie Johnson is known for today - mostly among blues aficionados and guitarists - were recorded on a single day in 1927. Since then, Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and the Staples Singers have recorded his compositions. The Blind Willie song that has perhaps endured the best is his song "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)" about Jesus' crucifixion. That song was chosen for an album placed aboard Voyager 1 in 1977. Astronomer Carl Sagan and his staff put Blind Willie's song on the compilation along with ancient chants, falling rain, a beating heart and Beethoven and Bach. The thought behind this compilation was that these sounds would best represent our race and civilization, just in case the Voyager was, you know, intercepted by curious extraterrestrials. "On that Voyager 1 disc is hard evidence that we are a spiritual people, that we hurt and heal, that we do indeed have souls that live long after we're buried," Corcoran wrote. Returning to earth, we are left with a lot of questions about who Blind Willie Johnson was, how he lived and what became of him after his brief but influential recording career. Corcoran's research put him in touch with Sam Faye Johnson Kelly of Marlin, the only child of Blind Willie and Willie B. Harris. Ms. Kelly had a death certificate, which showed Blind Willie as being born in 1897 near Brenham and dying in 1945 in Beaumont. Ms. Kelly told Corcoran she remembered her father staying with her mother until she was about 7 or 8 years old, which would have put Blind Willie in Marlin until at least the late 1930s. Music historian Mack McCormick said people remembered hearing Blind Willie play on KTEM radio a few times, but the Temple connections pretty much stop there. Corcoran, when contacted for this story, said he didn't find much information linking Blind Willie and Temple, other than the fact that his second wife, Angeline Johnson, was from Temple. Angeline's brother was a blues guitarist named L.C. Robinson. "Some of the misinformation of place of birth may have been a confusion with where Angeline was born," he said. Still, Temple likes to claim part of Scott Joplin's legacy because he lived here for a short while and published his first songs while he was in Temple. The city should at least be able to claim a small part of Blind Willie's legacy as well. ccoppedge@temple-telegram.com