History of the Blues #9:Blind Willie McTell

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Joined: 06/12/05
Posts: 1,579
Humble student
Joined: 06/12/05
Posts: 1,579
02/27/2008 3:33 am
History Of The Blues #9: Blind Willie McTell
By Hunter60

"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"

From Like Blind Willie McTell by Bob Dylan

When some people think of the blues, their thoughts go straight to the Delta and it's rich history and colorful characters like Robert Johnson, Son House and Charlie Patton. For others, it's Texas and it's hardscrabble, pumping rhythms and scorching solos that are so attached to Billy Gibbons, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Johnny Winter. For some, it's the post-war amplified Chicago sound complete with a full orchestra. No one aspect of the blues is any more important than any other but there is one genre of the blues that rarely gets mentioned these days as so many of it's practitioners are long gone. But in the twenties and thirties, east coast Piedmont blues was as heavily recorded and distributed, perhaps even more so, than the blues coming straight out of the Delta.

The Piedmont area of Georgia stretches from Atlanta in the south to Richmond, Virginia to the north. The Piedmont Mountains on it's left with the marshy Atlantic coastline forms its border to the east. This is tobacco country and as such, was spared the stark poverty so prevalent in the Delta during the Depression. It also provided a more natural bridge between both black and white's musical traditions. This commingling of styles has lead to the development of the Piedmont style of blues. Piedmont blues has a bouncier, jauntier, almost rag time quality to it. It is a less introspective style of blues, perhaps it could be said to be more outgoing.

One of the most prolific bluesmen of the Piedmont style was Blind Willie McTell recording over 120 tracks in 14 separate recording sessions. He was born May 5th, 1901 in Thomson, Georgia to musical parents. There are few details of his early life other than he was either completely blind from birth or partially blind at birth, losing the remainder of his sight in his early teens. From records that have been discovered, he apparently attended schools for the blind in Georgia, Michigan and New York and had become very adept at reading and writing in Braille, both text and music. He asserted a level of independence that inspires a sense of awe even today. (It's been said that he traveled alone quite often and found his away around New York City and the subway system with ease as an adult) It was said that he was even able to differentiate the denominations of various bank notes by feel. His family moved to Statesboro, Georgia when Willie was still a young man and his mother, neighbors and friends taught him the guitar. When his mother died when Willie was a teenager, he ran off and traveled with various carnivals, traveling medicine shows and minstrels. During this time McTell traveled a circuit that ran between Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah and Macon where he developed a style that was a mixture of the lighter Piedmont blues and a raw sound of the blues from the Deep South.

During the twenties and thirties, Willie "busked" up and down the eastern seaboard, following the tobacco market, playing at drying houses, shipping markets, retailers and anywhere he could get a gig for tips. Early on in his career, he switched from a 6 string to a 12-string guitar for the needed volume when he played on the streets. It was a fortuitous change as he is often considered one of the finest 12 string blues players ever recorded. Some experts have said that Blind Willie McTell played "like he had four hands". In the thirties, Willie often toured the South, sharing the bill with Blind Lemon Jefferson, another blues icon from the era.

By the mid-twenties with the establishment of the "race" records labels, scouts were scouring the countryside for talent. In 1927 McTell recorded "Statesboro Blues" for Victor Records and in 1928 he hit again with "Mama T'aint Long For Day" and "Georgia Rag".

Willie showed up, guitar in hand, to audition for any and all talent scouts that came through Piedmont area and would change his name as well as his style if he thought it would land him a gig. He has been recorded under the names "Blind Willie McTell", "Georgia Bill", "Red Hot Willie Glaze" as well as just "Blind Willie". He also did recordings for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress Recordings but these were not released at the time as Lomax said that he simply "did not care for" Willies sound. Generally a solo act, he did record with Curly Weaver, Buddy Moss and Ruthie Day.

He married Ruth Kate Williams in 1934 and they remained married throughout his life. She was an army nurse and remained home while Willie continued to travel constantly with his career as a musician. In an interview late in her life, Ruth recalled Willies response as to why he needed to travel so much. "He said, 'Baby, I was born a rambler. I'm going to ramble until I die, but I am preparing you to live after I'm gone.' He sure did. I retired with thirty-two years of nurse training at Fort Gordon."

In 1949, Willie made it to the Atlantic studios in New York City for an audition where he was spotted by legendary producer Ahmet Ertegun, an avid blues fan, who recognized him from his own record collection. Atlantic decided to release a pair of songs that Blind Willie had recorded much earlier in his career, "Kill it, Kid" and "Broke Down Engine Blues" under the name Barrelhouse Sammy which garnered Willie some positive reviews. In 1950, a scout for Regal Records by the name of Mendelson went to Atlanta looking for talent. Willie found him and they recorded a session with Willie using the name Pig and Whistle Red. He pulled this name from a barbeque joint where he frequently played for tips.

His last recording session was somewhat accidental. Ed Rhodes, an Atlanta record store owner played a Leadbelly record for a foreign student. The student returned later to tell Rhodes that there was a man down the street who was playing and singing in the same style as Leadbelly. The man was Blind Will McTell who was playing for tips behind the Blue Lantern Club. Rhodes, who owned some recording equipment, approached Willie several times about allowing him to record him. Finally, McTell relented and the recorded material that he had accumulated over his life, throwing in stories and anecdotes of his life. The tapes stayed in the attic of the record store for several years. When Rhodes was cleaning out the attic, he found the tapes of Willie sitting in a trashcan. Only one tape could be salvaged and it was later released as Blind Willie McTell's last recording session on the Prestige/Bluesville label.

In 1957, Willie gave up the blues and became a preacher at the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta, singing only spirituals. His wife, Ruth McTell, during her last interview in 1977 said, "He knew he was getting on in age. He felt that he was coming to the end of his journey, he was coming back to God".

He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 19th, 1959 in a state run hospital in Milledgeviile, Georgia.

Although much of his music has been relegated to the dusty blues collections, he did leave a hit that has become a landmark in music. "Statesboro Blues" is still considered a classic for both the Allman Brothers and Taj Mahal. Willie is revered by many current musicians , from Bob Dylan and The Allman Brothers to Jack White.
[FONT=Tahoma]"All I can do is be me ... whoever that is". Bob Dylan [/FONT]
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