Sunday, May 5, 2013

May 5: Blues legend Blind Willie McTell was born on this date in 1898...

... he died August 19, 1959.

Blind Willie McTell was an African-American blues musician and songwriter who sang and accompanied himself on the guitar. He was a twelve-string finger picking Piedmont blues guitarist. He recorded 149 songs between 1927 and 1956.

Born William Samuel McTier (or McTear) in Thomson, Georgia, blind in one eye, McTell had lost his remaining vision by late childhood but became an adept reading Braille. He showed proficiency in music from an early age and learned to play the six-string guitar as soon as he could.

After his father left the family and his mother died, he left his hometown and became a wandering busker. He began his recording career in 1927 for Victor Records in Atlanta.

In the years before World War II, he traveled and performed widely, recording for a number of labels under many different names, including Blind Willie McTell, Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Hot Shot Willie, Blind Willie, Barrelhouse Sammie, and Pig & Whistle Red. "Pig 'n Whistle" was a reference to a chain of Atlanta Bar-B-Que restaurants, one of which was located on the south side of East Ponce de Leon between Boulevard and Moreland Avenue frequently where he played for tips in the parking lot.  He was also known to play behind the nearby building that later became Ray Lee's Blue Lantern Lounge.

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The Best Of Blind Willie McTell

His musical style was a form of country blues bridging the gap between the raw blues of the early part of the 20th century and the more refined east coast "Piedmont" sound. He took on the less common and more unwieldy 12-string guitar because of its loudness.

McTell was unique among country bluesmen for his ability to play the guitar in both a complex, fingerpicking ragtime style similar to Blind Blake or Blind Boy Fuller and a heavier bottleneck blues style ("Three Women Blues"). He never played a song the same way twice. He would vary the bar pattern and sometimes even the rhythm and chord progression from verse to verse.

McTell was also an excellent accompanist and recorded many songs with his longtime musical companion, Curley Weaver; their recordings are some of the most outstanding examples of country blues guitar duets. See, for example, "It's a Good Little Thing" or "You Were Born to Die."

In 1934, he married Ruthy Kate Williams - also known as Kate McTell. She accompanied him on stage and on several recordings before becoming a nurse in 1939. Most of their marriage from 1942 until his death was spent apart, with her living in Fort Gordon near Augusta and him working around Atlanta.

Postwar, he recorded for Atlantic Records and Regal Records in 1949, but these recordings met with less commercial success than his previous works. He continued to perform around Atlanta, but his career was cut short by ill health, including diabetes and alcoholism.

In 1956, an Atlanta record store manager, Edward Rhodes, discovered McTell playing in the street for quarters and enticed him with a bottle of corn liquor into his store, where he captured a few final performances on a tape recorder. These were released posthumously on Prestige/Bluesville Records as Last Session.

McTell died in Milledgeville, Georgia, of a stroke in 1959.

Bob Dylan has paid tribute to McTell on at least four occasions: In his 1965 song "Highway 61 Revisited," the second verse begins with "Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose," referring to one of Blind Willie McTell's many recording names; later in his song "Blind Willie McTell," recorded in 1983 but released in 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3; then with covers of McTell's "Broke Down Engine" and "Delia" on his 1993 album, World Gone Wrong.

Also, in his song "Po'Boy," on 2001's "Love & Theft", which contains the lyric, "had to go to Florida dodging them Georgia laws," which comes from McTell's "Kill It Kid."

A blues bar in Atlanta is named after him and regularly features blues musicians and bands.

He was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1981.


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