Remembering Blind Willie McTell

And I know no-one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.
— Bob Dylan, Blind Willie McTell, 1983

I came across this today, from Metro Spirit, Augusta, Georgia. It’s 50 years since the death of Blind Willie McTell – the subject of the outstanding song left off Dylan’s Infidels album:

In the 50 years since his death, Thomson native Blind Willie McTell has become known as one of the country’s most influential bluesmen, inspiring famous musicians across the globe including Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers. Don Powers, an organizer of the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival, held in Thomson each year, said this country lost a great blues legend on Aug. 19, 1959.

“From my point of view, Blind Willie is one of about five country blues guitarists, or early blues and ragtime guitarists, whose influence is still felt through music today,” Powers said, comparing McTell’s influence to other great blues musicians such as Robert Johnson, John Hurt, Arthur Blind Blake, Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson. “Those people, in my opinion, are the best in the acoustic country blues.”

But what makes McTell stand out from those other blues artists is the fact that he played a 12-string guitar and was known for writing well-crafted songs with a touch of humor, Powers said. “His style is called Piedmont Blues and that is a description used for guitarists in the South Carolina and Georgia region of the country,” Powers said. “He didn’t write songs just like, ‘My baby done left me and I’m broken-hearted.’ His songs had verses and bridges and, typically, had a little humor in them.” While living in Milledgeville, Ga., in 1959, McTell is believed to have died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 58.

Powers vividly remembers the first time he heard a recording by McTell. “It was back when I was in college,” Powers said. “I met a guitar player back in the early 1970s. And when I introduced myself, I said, ‘Hello. I’m Don Powers from Thomson, Ga.’” The young guitarist laughed and told Powers that he had been trying to learn a tune by a bluesman from Thomson. “That’s when he told me about Willie McTell,” Powers said. “I had already heard ‘Statesboro Blues’ by the Allman Brothers, so I knew who he was. But I went over to his house and he played me the Library of Congress’ recording of Willie McTell.” The recording was done by historian Alan Lomax, who spent much of his life collecting traditional music from around the country, he said. “Alan Lomax met Willie in Atlanta and took him to a hotel room and turned on the recorder,” Powers said. “And about an hour later, they had 15 to 20 songs recorded.” During the recording, McTell mentions he grew up in the Happy Valley region of Thomson, Powers said.

McTell, who was born in May 1901, did not let the fact that he could not see prevent him from both reading and writing music, according to the Activities Council of Thomson. Through the support of his family, he eventually learned to read and write music in Braille. “Even though he was born and raised in Thomson, he didn’t stay here long,” Powers said. “He lived his teenage years in Statesboro, but he didn’t stay there long either. I guess if you had to pick his music home, his musical home would be Atlanta.”

Blind Willie McTell: Lonesome Day Blues

Blind Willie McTell: Your Time To Worry

There’s an interesting essay on the Bob Dylan song on this blog, that ‘Counts Down The Songs of Rock’s Best Artists’, from which I’ve extracted this passage:

On a song featuring just Dylan on piano and Mark Knopfler on acoustic guitar, who would have thought that center stage would go to Bob? One of the things that I’ve noticed by listening to all of these songs in a bundle is just how integral his piano-playing is to the success of many of them, and nowhere is that more true than on “Blind Willie McTell.” He plays the chords with a unique rhythm, often suspending the song for a moment here and there to maximize the impact when he does pick things up again. For his part, Knopfler is restrained and plays exactly what the song needs when it needs it.

Bob’s singing is also marvelous here. He takes it easy in the first few verses, soulfully sticking to the minor-key tune, before ratcheting things up in the final moments to a guttural howl. His heartache at the way things are going down gets the best of him as the song progresses, his voice finally veering up high and losing its composure to really drive the emotion home.

Many of the songs which I have ranked way up high on this list are the long, epic tracks with lots of verses and words for Dylan to tell his tale. But “Blind Willie McTell” is thrilling for the way he juggles so many topics without ever digressing and does it all with efficiency and economy. Only five verses of eight lines each, no run-on lines that jam all the words haphazardly together. It’s compact and powerful.

The narrator in the song is omnipresent and ageless, able to witness and describe all of the events for us. Most take place somewhere in the American South, its history so rich and complicated, so much of it tied to race. And yet it goes beyond that: “Seen the arrow on the doorpost/Saying, “This land is condemned/All the way from New Orleans/To Jerusalem.” Again, a continuum, not just across a distance of thousands of miles, but across time, from Moses to Harriet Tubman.

The narrator is there to see moments of revelry, “charcoal gypsy maidens” dancing joyously in front of him. But he also is there to see the awful legacy of slavery. He sees this legacy in reverse order, recounting the Civil War’s denouement first and the slaves arriving last: “See them big plantations burning/Hear the cracking of the whips/Smell the sweet magnolia blooming/See the ghosts of the slavery ships.” Beauty and terror intermingle in his senses, but it’s his hearing that produces the most severe jolt: “Hear that undertaker’s bell,” dead bodies the ultimate result.

In the fourth verse, we are again stranded in time as the images showcase Southern traditions, some noble, some dubious. The refinement and gentility of the well-dressed young couple is undercut by the illegal whiskey they’re drinking. We also rocket back in time to see the degradation of prisoners in a chain gang, but when Dylan follows that up with “I can hear them rebels yell,” it conjures the battle cry of Confederate soldiers that struck fear into their Northern enemies.

By mixing up the history into a messy stew, Dylan seems to be saying that it’s never easy to pinpoint a cause or assign blame for the ever-present anguish. But he then attempts to do just that, starting off the final verse with a sweeping condemnation of the human race that goes beyond any regional borders: “Well, God is in his heaven/And we all want what’s his/But power and greed and corruptible seed/Seem to be all that there is.” I probably quote this line more than any other of Bob’s, simply because of its relevance and all-encompassing nature; much of the world’s pain really boils down to those four lines.

The final section of the song is a brilliant ploy by Dylan to bring the whole song back to the present-day. He sings, “I’m staring out the window/Of the St. James Hotel,” which means that all of the sights and sounds and smells he just related to us were in the narrator’s brain all the while, not in front of his face. Many people make the connection to the blues song “St. James Infirmary,” but you could also place the narrator in St. James, Minnesota, in Bob’s home state, another indication that these societal ills are not confined to the South.

And, with the refrain, it all comes back to the blues, specifically Blind Willie McTell, who wins the narrator’s admiration for his talent, providing a useful distraction from the world of woe he has just described. The continuum is evident yet again.

Bob Dylan: 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
see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
hear the undertaker’s bell
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

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