Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Blind Willie McTell

Composed by Bob Dylan in 1983, I first heard Blind Willie McTell last year via the version recorded by The Band in 1993 with Levon Helm and Rick Danko on vocals.  It became an immediate favorite but it was only recently I listened to the various versions by Dylan, some of which I prefer to The Band's.  The melody is good, though you've heard it before (no surprise, when it comes to Dylan; for instance, take a listen to St James Infirmary - I don't think it's a coincidence that Dylan references the St James Hotel in the lyric) but the lyrics are among Dylan's finest, and it was recorded back in the days when he still had a singing voice.  Recorded in 1983 as part of the sessions for the Infidels album, it was cut at the last minute and not released until 1991 as part of the The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3.

Infidels was co-produced by Dylan and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.  The beautiful, haunting, and spare version released as part of the Bootleg Series is not available on YouTube so you'll have to find it on iTunes, Pandora, or Spotify.  However, there are several other versions worth listening to.  My favorite is another take from the same recording session featuring former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor on slide guitar.

This is a live version from a 2000 concert.  Dylan began performing the song in concert only after hearing the version recorded by The Band.

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 about 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 the 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 one thing, 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 that old St James Hotel
And I know no one can one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell McTell recording in an Atlanta hotel room, 1940)

Blind Willie McTell was born William Samuel McTier in 1898 or 1901 at Thomson, Georgia.  As a youngster he was part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north, growing up in Detroit.  Along the way he learned to play the blues on a 12-string guitar, and from 1927 until the late 1930s made several recordings with his distinctive tenor voice.  Like many of the bluesmen of the era, he had trouble finding a market for his music, as well as having his own personal troubles, and by the 1950s was reduced to playing for spare change on Atlanta street corners.  He died in 1959.

His best known song today is Statesboro Blues which was for decades a staple of Allman Brothers shows.  A sampling of other McTell songs follows:

Southern Can Is Mine
You Was Born To Die
Lord, Send Me An Angel
Travelin' Blues 

McTell recorded under many different names including Blind Sammie and Georgia Sam.   Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited (1965) contains the line "Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose", a reference to McTell.

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