With his twelve-string guitar on his back, Blind Willie McTell walked from Maine to Missouri and back down the Mississippi River. He could navigate the New York City subway system in the dark. And the man who’s been called ‘the human jukebox’ picked up nearly every musical style he found along the way.
Blind Willie McTell was more than just the King of Georgia Blues, he channeled the musical mosaic of the Nation. He heard more of the country than most men ever see. The breadth of his influences and lyric complexity reflect that range of American experience.
An educated man with a razor sharp wit and a religious mind, a keen ear, and a polished golden tongue—Bob Dylan was right when he sang “No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”
Here he puts on his travelin’ shoes for this 1950 track for Regal Records. I give you the elegant restlessness of Blind Willie McTell and “East St. Louis.”
“The King of Georgia Blues”, William Samuel McTier was born in Thomson, Georgia, in 1898. Blind Willie was educated at schools for the blind, where he learned to play harmonica and accordion as well as to read, write, and compose music in Braille. Soon after learning the guitar, he picked up the 12 string, favoring it for its volume. He left home in the 1920s to become a “songster,” playing throughout Georgia and getting all the way up to New York. He travelled and performed widely in the inter-war years, adopting pseudonyms so as to subvert recording contracts.
McTell’s idiosyncratic sound caught the ear of John Lomax. The famed folklorist and ethnomusicologist recorded McTell in his 1940 sessions for the Library of Congress, for which Blind Willie was remunerated $10. Blind Willie is notable was one of the only pre-war Bluesman to continue his career through out and after the war. Hitching around Georgia with his mate Curley Weaver, McTell recorded nearly all the way up until his death in 1959—just a few years before the Folk/Blues revival that would establish many of his contemporaries as household names.
His life and music surrounds us still. Blind Willie’s 1928 B-side masterpiece “Statesboro Blues” is known to Allman Brothers fans as one of their earliest signature songs. McTell’s pseudonym “Georgia Sam’s” bloody nose opens Dylan’s Highway 61, who of course, penned a devastating eponymous ode to Blind Willie and the world he lived in, available on the bootleg tapes.