Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Blind Willie McTell

"I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell"

If you haven’t heard of Blind Willie McTell, you must become acquainted with this man who played a foundational role in the formation and recording of American blues music. An African American musician blind from birth, he performed throughout the South and East and made recordings in the 1920s and 1930s. He had a distinct vocal style and a versatility on the 12-string guitar. His recordings were in the category of what the industry termed “race records” in those days. He was “re-discovered by John Lomax who labored to record for posterity authentic American Music.In 1940, Lomax recorded McTell’s music as well as interviews with the singer for the Archive of Folk Culture of the Library of Congress.

An innovator, McTell blended traits of the earthy Delta blues in the South with the ragtime beat of the Piedmont blues in the East. His work has been covered by many modern musicians, most notably the Allman Brothers and Taj Mahal, both of whom recorded “Statesboro Blues.”   In the 1970s, when Contemporary Christian music was just getting a foothold in the record industry, Honeytree had a hit with McTell’s song, “Ain’t It Grand to be a Christian.”

Bob Dylan wrote and recorded his song, “Blind Willie McTell” during sessions for his Infidels album in 1981, but the song did not appear on that album and was not released until 1991 with the first volume of the Bootleg Series. Some of his colleagues at the time wondered why Dylan did not include the song, which was one of his best, on the Infidels album. For my part, Infidels is one of my favorite albums and I don’t think “Blind Willie McTell” would have fit in with the rest of the content. Even though we had to wait a few years for it, it is probably better that this wonderful tribute was released later when it could stand on its own for the great song that it is in commemoration of the influential blues singer.

While celebrating McTell’s talent, Dylan artfully captures the milieu in which the blues arose with such phrases as, “ghosts of slavery ships” and “Hear the cracking of the whips / Smell that sweet magnolia blooming.” You can hear Dylan’s recording of the song here

It is only right that Bob Dylan pays homage to Blind Willie McTell. Dylan often acknowledges his debt to American folk music, and in his early days he was seen as a being strongly influenced by Woody Guthrie. Listening to Blind Willie McTell, however, especially when he is singing a Delta blues rhythm with those repetitive phrases, one hears a definite source and inspiration to many of Dylan’s most effective songs. Below you can hear Blind Willie McTell singing, Statesboro Blues and see some photos of him from You Tube. For more information about Blind Willie McTell, you can read about him in the New Georgia Encyclopedia here. Scroll on down to see Bob Dylan’s lyrics to "Blind Willie McTell."

Blind Willie McTell
By Bob Dylan

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


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