Thursday, March 27, 2008

Blind Willie McTell

Continuing in a blues vein . . . .

I've been travelin' lately down those lost dirt roads of Blind Willie McTell, wandering through overhanging willows and late-afternoon shadows that fall upon the graveyard on the hill, crossing over the tracks and down into the valley, where the wind whispers your name and evening grows hushed and still. After years of circling around the man, hearing rumors and reports, I've been hooked.

Here's a bit of his story from AMG:

Willie Samuel McTell was one of the blues' greatest guitarists, and also one of the finest singers.

McTell was born in Thomson, Georgia, near Augusta, and raised near Statesboro. Willie was probably born blind, although early in his life he could perceive light in one eye. His blindness never became a major impediment, however, and it was said that his sense of hearing and touch were extraordinary. His first instruments were the harmonica and the accordion, but as soon as he was big enough he took up the guitar and showed immediate aptitude on the new instrument. He played a standard six-string acoustic until the mid-'20s, and never entirely abandoned the instrument, but from the beginning of his recording career, he used a 12-string acoustic in the studio almost exclusively. Willie's technique on the 12-string instrument was unique. Unlike virtually every other bluesman who used one, he relied not on its resonances as a rhythm instrument, but, instead, displayed a nimble, elegant slide and finger-picking style that made it sound like more than one guitar at any given moment. He studied at a number of schools for the blind, in Georgia, New York, and Michigan, during the early '20s, and probably picked up some formal musical knowledge. He worked medicine shows, carnivals, and other outdoor venues, and was a popular attraction, owing to his sheer dexterity and a nasal singing voice that could sound either pleasant or mournful, and incorporated some of the characteristics normally associated with White hillbilly singers.

Willie's recording career began in late 1927 with two sessions for Victor records, eight sides including "Statesboro Blues." McTell's earliest sides were superb examples of storytelling in music, coupled with dazzling guitar work. All of McTell's music showed extraordinary power, some of it delightfully raucous ragtime, other examples evoking darker, lonelier sides of the blues, all of it displaying astonishingly rich guitar work.

Blind Willie McTell was one of the giants of the blues, as a guitarist and as a singer and recording artist. Hardly any of his work as passed down to us on record is less than first rate, and this makes most any collection of his music worthwhile. A studious and highly skilled musician whose skills transcended the blues, he was equally adept at ragtime, spirituals, story-songs, hillbilly numbers, and popular tunes, excelling in all of these genres. He could read and write music in braille, which gave him an edge on many of his sighted contemporaries, and was also a brilliant improvisor on the guitar, as is evident from his records. Willie always gave an excellent account of himself, even in his final years of performing and recording.
Here's McTell performing one of his most famous tunes, "Broke Down Engine Blues." Recorded in New York City, September 18, 1933. With Curly Weaver on 2nd guitar.

And here are some other McTell recordings:

"Southern Can Is Mine." Recorded in Atlanta on October 23, 1931, under the name Blind Sammie.

"Georgia Rag" Recorded in Atlanta on October 31, 1931, under the name Georgia Bill. Also with Curly Weaver.

"Searching The Desert For The Blues." Recorded in Atlanta, February 22, 1932.

I can't post on McTell without mentioning Bob Dylan. It was Dylan's 1983 classic, "Blind Willie McTell," that introduced me to the bluesman. In my mind, the song remains Dylan's greatest work in the post-Desire era. Ever the trickster, Dylan initially recorded the tune for his Infidels album, but then, unhappy with the result, he buried it until the 1991 box set, Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 : Rare And Unreleased. [FYI: That's an amazing collection in itself. Dylan's rare and unreleased material is better than most people's published work.]

"Blind Willie McTell" is one of the most beautiful and haunting songs of of Bob Dylan's career.

Of anyone's career.

"Blind Willie McTell"

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, "This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem."
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
(I can) hear the undertaker's bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There's a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He's dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There's a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what's his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I'm gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

And here's Dylan doing McTell's "Broke Down Engine Blues," from World Gone Wrong, Bob's 1993 acoustic album of old blues tunes.

And here are some McTell songs by other folks:

"Statesboro Blues" - Allman Brothers, from their classic live album, At Fillmore East.

"Your Southern Can Is Mine" - White Stripes, from De Stijl.


Jeff said...

Thanks for that, William. Of all the blues I've listened to over the years, I don't think I ever listened to an original Blind Willie McTell. Sort of had a haunting quality to him, like Robert Johnson's Me and the Devil Blues.

Stateboro Blues by the Allman Brothers is probably my favorite live show cut of all time. That and their cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's One Way Out. Great slide work by Duane on both.

cowboyangel said...


I'm glad someone actually listened to the songs. I had never heard McTell until recently, but I clicked with him instantly. Something about his voice. I guess it is a bit haunting. He seems connected in some way to Jimmie Rodgers of all people. That country blues thing. It's almost got a folk quality. I can hear his influence on Dylan. His phrasing, in particular.

Talk about haunting, have you ever heard Skip James? He's been another revelation for me.

If you haven't heard him (or not in a while), try these:

"Hard Time Killing Floor"

"Devil Got My Woman"

"Cypress Grove" - From 1931.