Blind Willie Johnson

I’ve been dipping into the second volume of Clinton Heylin’s exhaustive study of the songs of Bob Dylan.  ‘Dipping’ is all I can manage: I find the accumulated detail exhausting. And, moreover, it’s not ‘the songs of Bob Dylan’ – it should, more accurately be subtitled  ‘the recordings of Bob Dylan’ because Heylin exhaustively catalogues every known recording, but is less interested in the words – really the only thing on which it would be worth spending the time required to read the books from end to end.

Anyway, one thing that caught my eye was his discussion of ‘Blind Willie McTell’, the magnificent song that Dylan inexplicably left off the Infidels album.  There had always been something puzzling about the song – and Heylin confirms my suspicions:  Dylan got the wrong Blind Willie.

Dylan’s lyric ‘reeks of  the fumes of hell-fire’ in Heylin’s words. The song is drenched in religious and apocalyptic imagery that decries greed, vanity and corruption.  There is cruelty and pain; people are fallen, in chains, under the whip:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost saying, This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem

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 that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

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

Now, Willie McTell was a great blues singer, but this imagery doesn’t evoke his work.  His material wasn’t religious and he rarely sang spirituals. Rather, he was a broad-brush entertainer, more likely to be singing ‘Beedle Um Bum’ or ‘Mama, Let Me Scoop For You’ than warning of sin and the Apocalypse.

Born William Samuel McTear in Thomson, Georgia, blind in one eye, McTell had lost his remaining vision by late childhood. He showed proficiency in music from an early age and learned to play the six-string guitar as soon as he could. His father left the family when McTell was still young, so when his mother died in the 1920s, he left his hometown and became a wandering busker. He began his recording career in 1927. His style was a form of country blues that bridged the gap between the raw blues of the early part of the 20th Century and the more refined East Coast ‘Piedmont’ sound. McTell’s most famous songs are ‘Statesboro Blues’ and ‘Your Southern Can Is Mine’.

There’s no doubt that Dylan revered Blind Willie McTell.  He paid tribute to him in his 1965 song ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ in the second verse, which begins, ‘Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose‘, referring to one of Blind Willie McTell’s many recording names, and he recorded his own versions of McTell’s ‘Broke Down Engine’ and ‘Delia’ on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong.

But still…there is another Blind Willie, whose work exactly fits the imagery of Dylan’s song and who consistently sang about sin and redemption, judgement and the Apocalypse: Blind Willie Johnson.

The lyrics of all Blind Willie Johnson’s songs were religious, drawing on both sacred and blues traditions.  They have titles like Can’t Nobody Hide From God’, ‘I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole’, ‘Jesus Is Coming Soon’ and ‘God Don’t Never Change’:

Yes God, God don’t never change
He’s God, always will be God

God in the middle of the ocean
God in the middle of the sea
By the help of the great creator
Truly been a God to me
Hey God, God don’t never change
God, always will be God

God in creation
God when Adam fell
God way up in heaven
God way down in hell
He’s God, God don’t never change
God, always will be God

Johnson’s most famous recordings include ‘In My Time of Dying’, his rendition of the famous gospel song ‘Let Your Light Shine On Me’, and the raw and powerful ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’, where he sings a wordless moan that will make the hairs stand on the back of the neck of even an atheist. ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground’ was included on the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.  Johnson’s gravel-voiced growl is just as eery on his ‘John The Revelator’:

Well, who’s that a-writing? John The Revelator
Who’s that a-writing? John The Revelator
Who’s that a-writing? John The Revelator
A book of the seven seals.

Tell me what’s John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
What’s John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
What’s John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
A book of the seven seals.

Father, who art worthy, son’s right and holy
Bound up for some, Son of our God
Daughter of Zion, Judas the Lion
He redeemed us, and He bought us with his blood.
John the Revelator, great advocator
Gets’em on the battle of Zion
Lord, tellin’ the story, risin’ in glory

Blind Willie Johnson’s music and life were featured in the brilliant 2003 film The Soul of a Man by Wim Wenders for the PBS series The Blues. In his film Wim Wendersfocussed on the dramatic tension in the blues between the sacred and the profane, exploring the music and lives of three of his favorite blues artists: Skip James, J. B. Lenoir and Blind Willie Johnson. The film took its title from another of Blind Willie Johnson’s unearthly blues:

Won’t somebody tell me, answer if you can!
Want somebody tell me, what is the soul of a man
I’m going to ask the question, answer if you can

If anybody here can tell me, what is the soul of a man?
I’ve travelled in different countries, I’ve travelled foreign lands
I’ve found nobody to tell me, what is the soul of a man

I saw a crowd stand talking, I came up right on time
Were hearing the doctor and the lawyer, say a man ain’t nothing but his mind
I read the bible often, I tries to read it right

As far as I can understand, a man is more than his mind
When Christ stood in the temple, the people stood amazed
Was showing the doctors and the lawyers, how to raise a body from the grave

So, Blind Willie Johnson seems a more likely inspiration for Dylan’s song than McTell.  But Dylan knows his blues: maybe it he chose McTell rather than Johnson because it offers better rhyming opportunities.  Or maybe the song is not so much a tribute to Blind Willie than a homage to an era with which he is apparently obsessed – at least going by his Theme Time Radio shows, his two albums of blues covers, and other evidence . Maybe it’s simply that listening to McTell – or any blues artist – takes him back to a time ‘big plantations’, ‘bootlegged whiskey’, ‘chain gang[s] on the highway’ and ‘the ghost of slavery’.  And then, because it was intended for Infidels, an album saturated in admonishments concerning power and greed, he adds the final verse that thrusts us back into the present:

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

In his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Michael Gray is convinced that the song really is about Blind Willie McTell.  He notes a spooky coincidence:

‘Blind Willie McTell’ manages to commemorate not only the death of McTell but his birthday also. McTell was almost certainly born in 1903, and the only specific birthdate ever mooted has been May 5. Either by eerie coincidence, or because Dylan is a walking blues encyclopedia, when he came to record ‘Blind Willie McTell’ in 1983, he did so on
May 5′.


2 thoughts on “The soul of a song

    1. Thanks, Paul. Appreciate that. To follow the blog just press the blue follow link on the left of the post (or scroll down below the post if you’re reading on a mobile).

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