String dazzler

Whether it was his guitar playing or singing, Blind Willie McTell was one of a kind


Blind Willie McTell performing in John A. Lomax’s hotel room in Atlanta in 1940.
Blind Willie McTell performing in John A. Lomax’s hotel room in Atlanta in 1940.

“And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”, sang Bob Dylan on “Blind Willie McTell” (1983), one of his finest songs from the latter half of his career. McTell stopped singing the blues when he died on 19 August, 1959.

More than anything else, Dylan was probably alluding to McTell’s vocal delivery—a somewhat nasal, laidback tenor that is quite distinctive in the country blues canon. It hints at his roots in the east coast, and is quite different from the usually rough, gravelly vocals of bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta. But his vocal prowess notwithstanding, Blind Willie McTell is better known for his incredible guitar playing.

Outside hardcore country blues circles McTell has remained largely unknown, though many may be familiar with one of his most well-known songs without knowing that it’s his, “Statesboro Blues”, thanks to The Allman Brothers Band covering it for their live album at the Fillmore East in 1971.

McTell was born William Samuel McTier on 5 May, 1898 in the small town of Thomson, Georgia. Nearly blind at birth, he lost his sight completely before he turned 10. In an age when it was difficult for black people to find jobs, being blind was a crippling blow, unless you were a musician. And there are indeed many blind bluesmen for the early days of recorded blues. Unlike many African Americans from the rural South, McTell found time to attend blind school in Macon, Georgia. By the time he appeared for his first recording session in 1927 for Victor Records, he also attended blind school in the states of New York and Michigan, where he learnt Braille.

Folklorist John A. Lomax and his wife Ruby encountered McTell singing in an Atlanta street corner in 1940, and recorded him for the Library of Congress folk archives. Lomax later recounted their car ride, where McTell called out the traffic lights and names of buildings as they passed them.

McTell’s approach to guitar playing is unique in the blues, as he was equally adept at ragtime tunes and bottleneck guitar playing. His ragtime influences are no different from many other players from Georgia, but bottleneck guitar, which uses open tunings is usually disparaged by adept ragtime guitar players like Reverend Gary Davis. Unlike the great bottleneck guitarists from the Delta who favoured a rough, rhythmic style, McTell’s slide work is melodic in the extreme.

The record label for Southern Can Is Mine
The record label for Southern Can Is Mine
McTell also stands apart from most blues musicians in his use of the 12-string acoustic guitar. Though there have well-known exponents such as Leadbelly and Barbecue Bob, the likely reasons why most blues guitarists used the 12-string were to attain a fuller sound before the age of amplification or a lack of fingerstyle technique. Not so with Willie though. The speed and clarity that McTell achieves on 12 strings is well beyond the capabilities of most guitarists. His dexterity on fast ragtime numbers like “Southern Can Is Mine” and “Georgia Rag” is jaw-dropping.

In his early years as a performer just before and after World War I, McTell appeared with medicine shows and traces of those years are apparent in some of his more “gimmicky” songs such as “Atlanta Strut” and “Travelin’ Blues”. On these tracks, he almost nonchalantly uses his guitar to mimic sounds of a train’s engine, bell and whistle; a cackling hen and a crowing rooster; a bass viol; a man running up the stairs; and even someone saying, “egg and cheese”!

The record label for Travelin’ Blues
The record label for Travelin’ Blues
Despite his personable vocals and virtuoso guitar playing, McTell never had a hit and his career seemed over by the early 1930s with onset of the Great Depression when hardly any records by black musicians were released. One cannot accuse McTell of not trying. Ever since his first session in 1927, he tried to stay one step ahead of record companies, often hoodwinking them by using different aliases: Blind Willie McTell, Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Hot Shot Willie, Blind Willie, Barrelhouse Sammie…

For most of his career McTell remained a street singer and a few years before his death, he was recorded on a tape machine by a record store owner in Atlanta. Suffering from diabetes and an alcoholic to boot, McTell had a fatal stroke, apparently while having barbeque under a tree.

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