Nobody Sings The Blues Like Blind Willie McTell
Seen the arrow on the doorstepBob Dylan, “Blind Willie McTell”
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell.
Semi-mythical in his own time, a shadowy legend to the blues revivalists, and known mainly to blues connoisseurs today, Blind Willie McTell was in many ways the archetypal early bluesman. Bob Dylan depicted him as such, painting pictures of chain gangs, burning plantations, and bootleg whiskey in his song of the same name. And yet, the reality isn’t that simple. In as many ways as McTell was a typical bluesman, he was also an atypical bluesman. An independent spirit and a true original, Blind Willie McTell was unlike anyone in his or any other time. Here are ten true stories about the man behind the legend.
He was born into a musical family in rural Georgia.
Blind Willie McTell was born William Samuel McTier (“McTell” is a phonetic spelling of “McTier” in a local accent) in Thomson, Georgia in 1898. He came from a family of musicians: his parents both played guitar, as did an uncle. His cousin was the blues and gospel singer Thomas A. “Georgia Tom” Dorsey, best known as the composer of gospel classic “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
He could read and write music in Braille.
McTell was born mostly blind, and lost his remaining sight in early childhood. In rural America in the early 20th century, that was usually the end of any educational opportunities. However, a neighbor paid for McTell to attend schools for the blind in Georgia, Michigan, and New York. At the time, music was one of the few career paths open to blind people, so the schools McTell attended had extensive music programs. In addition to his academic studies, McTell learned to read and write sheet music in Braille, and to play instruments including accordion, harmonica, and guitar.
He began his recording career at a time when blind blues musicians were considered “trendy”.
When Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson had a runaway hit with “Got The Blues/Long Lonesome Blues” in 1926, he changed the face of the blues music industry. While the earliest blues stars had been female singers accompanied by jazz bands, suddenly every record label wanted to sign a male blues guitarist. If the guitarist was blind, the companies would emphasize that to cash in on Jefferson’s success. Blind Lemon Jefferson was soon joined by Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Gary Davis, and of course, Blind Willie McTell, among many others. The emphasis on Jefferson’s celebrity was so overwhelming that McTell’s “Death Cell Blues” was advertised with an illustration not of McTell, but of Jefferson, with a photo of McTell in the corner as an afterthought.
He wrote the Allman Brothers’ classic “Statesboro Blues”.
“Statesboro Blues” is best known to classic rock fans in an iconic live version by the Allman Brothers Band. The Allman Brothers had learned the song from blues musician Taj Mahal, who recorded it in 1967. In fact, “Statesboro Blues” was originally recorded four decades earlier, by the man who wrote it, Blind Willie McTell.
While this song led many to believe McTell was born in Statesboro, he actually moved there with his mother when he was nine, and did not stay there long. Still, in a 1940 interview, McTell referred to Statesboro as his “real home”.
He made records under many different pseudonyms.
In McTell’s day, it was common for artists to use several different names in order to record outside their contracts. Still, few performers had as many alternate identities as McTell, whose recorded alter egos include Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Hot Shot Willie, Blind Willie, Barrelhouse Sammie, and Pig & Whistle Red. He used these pseudonyms to record for eight different record labels, starting in the 1920s and ending in the 1950s.
His wife was a blues musician, too.
McTell’s wife, Kate McTell (previously known as Ruth Kate Williams) made several recordings as a blues singer. She also performed on stage with the likes of Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. McTell played guitar and sang on his wife’s recordings, and she sang on several of his. She and her husband used the money they made from performing to pay her way through nursing school. After earning her nursing certificate in 1939, she retired from performing.
He recorded for the Library of Congress.
Folklorists John and Ruby Lomax found McTell playing and singing at the Pig & Whistle Barbecue, one of his usual performance spots. Since business was slow that day, he agreed to record for the Lomaxes, who were collecting blues and folk music recordings for the Library of Congress. The session went well, although it became uncomfortable when John Lomax asked if McTell knew any protest songs. Since McTell made his living from live performances, and often performed at white-owned venues, he was unwilling to record anything that could be deemed controversial.
His sense of direction was legendary.
After the Library of Congress recording session, the Lomaxes couldn’t find their way back to their hotel, so McTell offered to show them the way. They were amazed as McTell escorted them through busy Atlanta streets, fully aware of his surroundings despite his inability to see them. Even more astonishingly, on a trip to New York with bluesmen Curley Weaver and Buddy Moss, he led them through the New York City subway. It had been more than a decade since McTell attended school in the city, but he appeared to have the subway system memorized. A cousin described him as “ear-sighted”, using a heightened sense of hearing to compensate for his lack of sight.
He recorded a “lost album” for Atlantic Records.
When McTell recorded for Atlantic Records in 1949, acoustic blues had gone out of style. Due to the public’s lack of interest, only two songs from this recording session were released. However, twenty years later, a group of blues fans noticed there were two missing numbers between the catalog numbers for “Kill It Kid” and “Broke Down Engine Blues.” The fans asked Atlantic Records if they could look through their files for information about the (presumably) two lost Willie McTell songs. What they found instead was evidence of thirteen previously unreleased tracks by the great Georgia bluesman. Thankfully, Atlantic still had the original master recordings of these songs in their vault. These were released during the height of the blues revival as the Atlantic album Atlanta Twelve String.
He never had a hit record during his lifetime.
Despite his skill as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter, McTell’s records weren’t hits during his lifetime. He had the support of record industry professionals. His recording career spanned parts of four decades. But whether due to poor distribution, or the effects of the Depression, or the changing tastes of the public, he never had a hit record. Still, he was a popular live entertainer, performing for Black audiences at Atlanta’s segregated 81 Theatre, and for white audiences at the Pig & Whistle Barbecue. During his most active years, his touring schedule took him to every town and city between Miami and Mississippi. He may never have had a hit, but for a few miraculous years, he was a star.
BONUS: He continues to inspire musicians to this day.
McTell’s influence didn’t end when the “blues revival” years of the 1960s and 70s were over. In the 21st century, rock star Jack White emerged as one of McTell’s most prominent fans, covering songs including “Lord, Send Me An Angel”, and reissuing McTell’s early recordings on vinyl in collaboration with Document Records. He is hardly the only current musician to be influenced by McTell, however, and young blues musicians like Jerron Paxton and Jontavious Willis bring the sounds of the early Georgia bluesmen to a modern audience. McTell’s birthplace of Thomson, Georgia never forgot him, either, and the town holds the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival every year in his honor.
Not bad for a musician who never had a hit.