Blind Willie McTell Biography

Blind Willie McTell Biography

Willie and Kate McTell
Play "God Don't Like It."

The following text is the original liner notes from the 1972 record album Atlanta Twelve String (which was also released on compact disc in 1992).
Atlanta is a strange city, one of many contrasts. Today once can see a scar seared in the middle of the black southern area in which is located Atlanta Stadium. Edging on the scar and the needed arteries is the black ghetto - Decatur Street is not far off, and that is the main street in that section of town. Another contrast is the relative affluence of the city ensconced in a state full of army bases, red dirt, kudzu, and poor people. Atlanta is a good city, but it is a bit on the strange side - though this may be due to its context.

There has been a great deal of musical activity in Atlanta, and many of the good bluesmen lived and / or recorded there. Being at the southern end of the Piedmont belt (geopgraphically and musically) resulted in there being a regional modification of the prevalent Piedmont style. This was most popularized by Blind Boy Fuller, and was recorded commerically from the late twenties into the fifties. In addition, there were strictly local talents, as well as "passers through."

In the twenties there were a great many musicians in and about town. People such as Peg Leg Howell, Eddie Anthony, "Barbecue Bob" (Robert Hicks), Eddie Mapp, Fred McMullen, Charlie Lincoln (Charlie Hicks), Ruth Willis, Buddy Moss, and Curley Weaver were found at parties, dances, and suppers. They were also found on record - especially on the original Columbia and Okeh - and seemingly sold rather well. Howell, Anthony, et al. worked in the stringband tradition, while the Hicks brothers tended to work solo, or with each other, depending on the circumstances, and they all had a connection to Atlanta's best, Blind Willie McTell.

McTell was a true twelve-string guitar wizard - he backed up some of the above, and used Moss, McMullen, and especially Curley Weaver as second to him. He recorded some eighty blues and gospel songs from 1927 to 1936, and made a couple of sessions after that - the last being in 1956. His finger-picking style on his awkward instrument is instantly recognized, as is his use of a bottleneck on it on occasion. He is a masterful, mysterious musician of whom little is known.

Connoisseurs of post-war "Rhythm and Blues" and blues were long intriqued by an early Atlantic record released on 78 under the name of "Barrelhouse Sammy - The Country Boy" It was instantly obvious that the pseudonym hit the identity of that great blues singer of the 1920's and 1930's, Blind Willie McTell. What they didn't know was how many other titles Atlantic had recorded, the only clue lying in the gap of two master control numbers between Kill It Kid (A320) and Broke Down Engine Blues (A323), the two titles on 78.

When Pete Lowery, Mike Leadbitter and myself visited Atlantic in 1959 our intent was simple but our hope of sucess or cooperation, from past experience, in doubt. We wanted to see the early company files covering the years before Atlantic was a giant corporation and take down missing discographical details to fill in our knowledge of the company's activities and plug gaps in Mike's book (with Neil Slaven), Blues Records 1943-66. Some companies dislike (not unnaturally) strangers peering through their past, but Atlantic didnt mind as a phone call by Mike brought a positive "come over and have a look" response. However, many companies do not have vital information on their acitivities of twenty years ago; they didn't keep files very accurately and often what they did keep was lost, stolen, mislaid or destroyed! We held our breath as we made our way! Upon arrival in the mid-morning, we were shown out into a hall where the master books are kept. Mostly these are impressive ledgers, looking suitably important to document the huge hits and important jazz Atlantic has recorded. Lying there among these was a quarto-bound writing book rather like those used in schools. This contained, in a painstaking pen, hand-written details of Atlantic's first sessions. Our excitement increased as we at first glanced, and then, suitably ensconced in one of the studios, studiously pored over the contents. Possibly the most important news was that the lone 78 of McTell came from a session of no less than 15 titles! The next question of course, did they still exist? Originally recorded into acetate discs on location in Atlanta, the consensus of opinion was that they didn't. Atlantic staff had already looked, but it was a big job. Eventually they were found in good shape and the last great block of titles recorded commercially by this superb artist can at last be heard by the record buyer, twenty-plus years after they were recorded.

Pseudonyms were a McTell stock-in-trade, having used Blind Sammie (for Columbia in the late twenties / early thirties), Georgia Bill (for Okeh at the same time), Hot Shot Willie (for Victor in 1932), Blind Willie (for Vocalion in the thirties and Regal in the fifties), Pig 'n' Whistle Red (for Regal again) and Barrelhouse Sammy for Atlantic. He reverted back to Blind Willie McTell when recording for Decca in 1935, and the Library of Congress (for John Lomax) in 1940. As this was the name on the first records made for Victor in 1927 it has come to be taken as "his own" but what he called himself most of the time is beyond our direct knowledge. In conversations with people who knew him (i. e. Buddy Moss, Piano Red, and others in the Atlanta area), he is always referred to as "Blind Wille" - his full name appearing occasionally in the City Directory. All this tells little about the gentleman, but that he recorded prolifcally before the Second World War and knew how to dodge contract commitments!

Little is really known about McTell, born May 5, 1901 in Statesboro, Georgia, but he was best-known in Atlanta where reports of his activities have been preserved, notably via recordings he made for the Library of Congress by John Lomax in 1940. These recordings, only made available to the public in the mid 1960's, reveal for the first time the depth of McTell's songbag. A "last session" done non-professionally in 1955 was unearthed and released by Prestige in 1960 which underlined his breadth of repertoire and cuased consternation among the collectors who had hitherto regarded McTell as purely a "blues singer". The 1949 session issued here reinforces this impression even more.

John Lomax's interview at the Library of Congress session with McTell, who was probably blind from infancy, reveals a quick-wittedness quite in accordance with reports of his uncanny sense of direction. After locating McTell, Lomax was unable to get back to his hotel -

"Ill show you, said totally blind Willie. Between us and the hotel, there were six or eight right-angled cross streets and two places where five or six streets crossed. Chatting all the while with me, Blind Willie called every turn, even mentioning the location of the stop-lights. He gave the names of buildings as we passed them. Stored in his mind was an accurate detailed photograph of Atlanta."1

This ability allowed him to travel, apparently unhindered by his affliction, to far and distant parts following carnivals, circuses, and medicine shows during the first half of the century.

Other similar remembrances come from Buddy Moss, Herb Abramson and Piano Red - the latter remembering Wilie taking him to Augusta to record for Vocalion in 1938. It was Red's firsttrip out of the Atlanta area! Buddy "related on story of McTell taking them (i.e. Moss and Curley Weaver) clear across New York once and said thaat after one subway ride, he could find his way back again. Apparently McTell was quite independent and needed no one to lead him . . .he just catch a buss and ride . . . 'the only thing to confuse him was a ten-dollar bill.'."2

It is interesting that in the early '20's he attended a school for the blind in Macon attended by the great hillbilly artist Riley Puckett, and speculation as to the identity of the "darkey in Atlanta" who taught Puckett his guitar tour de force Darkey's Wail, is intriguing.

McTell played a twelve-string guitar most of the time, giving his songs a deep, rich background, but with a lightness of touch and variability not associated with other contemporaries of the twelve such as Barbecue Bob, Willie Baker, or Charlie Lincoln with their hard chordal approach. He sounds like no other artist, nor does he apparently subscribe to the trends set by other artists in the developmental period in recorded blues, men like Big Bill Broonzy or Blind Blake.

This is a point open to some conjecture - he no doubt heard Blind Lemmon Jefferson or his records (as seen by his version of One Dime Blues), and some blues artists of the Piedmont region play similarly when the pick up a twelve-string. Jefferson and Blake were prodigious influences on blues singers in the 20's . . . how much being hard to gauge. Atlanta records of the 20's and 30's are usually instantly recognizable; so is McTell, he is apart from the rest - a great folksinger, blues singer and guitarist whose immense talent has only been fully appreciated in recent years. Why Alan Lomax, who did so much to promote Leadbelly, overlooked a similar opportunity with McTell, is hard to understand; he haas the compelling dramatic voice of the best bluesmen coupled with the wit and imagery of the greatest folk-poet. This facet was at least remembered by Ahmet Ertegun, and the songs of this album are the result.

Sam Charters mentions this McTell session in his 1959 book The Country Blues. "The Atlantic record, Broke Down Engine Blues and Kill It Kid on Atlantic 891 was oone of the most perplexing records in the blues field. He simply walked into the Atlantic studios in 1949, auditioned and recorded without any reference to his remarkable past." This is a lovely but apocryphal study. The Erteguns of Atlantic records started out as jazz fans and collectors of records - they even published a small magazine while in California. From this background Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson began the company in 1947 - stressing jazz and jazz-based releases. It was their distributor in Atlanta who alerted Ahmet to Blind Willie's presence in town. Realizing this was the same who many blues and gospel sides pre-war, he went down and recorded him there. The two sides issued are excellent, but were not exactly a commercial proposition in 1949. A lone black man singing and playing in that style wasn't a seller and the remainder of the session was never issued. Such songs as Broke Down Engine Blues, with its rich double meanings, or Dying Crapshooters Blues, an incredible funeral chant which goes back to variants collected in the 19th century and probably older, do give an indication of McTell's ability. Little Delia is a brilliantly told story while several other items are reworkings of well-loved themes such as Blind Lemon's Last Dime Blues or the eternal Pinetop's Boogie Woogie given McTell's personalized guitar treatment.

At the time these records were made, McTell was very closely allied too another fine Atlanta artist, Curley Weaver, whose presence here on some numbers here is uncertain, but possible. He may be on guitar on one or two titles - they played so closely together it is often hard to separate them. Willie does call out on several numbers "take it six" or some similar command, but this may be out of habit rather than a second guitar being present.

The twelve-string guitar gives such a very full sound and what sounds like another guitarist could be a touch of echo. McTell's religious bent, folling a dual role taken by countless blues artists like Jefferson or Charlie Patton, many of whom changed their name when they donned the "cloth", is well illustrated by five oof the titles on Side 2. His style changes little, but for the use of a bottleneck, his attack or feeling not at all; whether he had a deep religious sense or not we shall never know, for a half-century of singing for his meals on the streets all over the Eastern states had no doubt taught him to sing like he meant it, whatever the subject. Of necessity was no doubt born the patience, sensitivity, and observation which made this man a giant among folk artists. It is a terrible shameit took him so long, as it has other great artists in many other fields, to gain the recognition he so richly deserved while alive. Though still alive as late as 1966 it seems likely that McTell is dead, though how, when and where we still do not know. All he left us is his beautiful music, a heritage whose worth will be accentuated by the release of these superb performances.

Simon A. Napier
editor Blues Unlimited

1. John A. Lomax, Library of Congress Recordings - Biograph Records
2. Bastin & Lowry, Blues Unlimited, #67 Nov. 1969 "Tricks Ain't Working No More - Part I"

A Depression-era recording star, Blind Willie McTell worked until just before his death in 1959. His repertoire was phenomenal, covering mellow blues, hillbilly music, spirituals, quick-fingered rags, minstrel show tunes, and even semi-pornographic ditties. He played with a light touch on a big-bodied Stella 12-string, specializing in shifting rhythms and resonant melodies that were as istinctive as his clear, somewhat nasal voice. His best-known song is "Statesboro Blues," a 1928 finger-picking showpiece named after his Georgia hometown. (Four decades later, the Allman Brothers turned it into their signature song.) A shrewd, intelligent man, McTell is remembered as having extraordinary powers of perception and memory, as well as an uncanny sense of direction. A great improviser, he sometimes composed with great deliberation, while other tunes reflect a stream-of-consciousness approach bordering on poetry. He kept a large 78 collection and occasionally learned songs from Braille sheet music. During the Depression, he recorded as Georgia Bill for Okeh, Blind Willie for Vocalion, and Hot Shot Willie for Bluebird. He was often accompanied by a second guitarist, and his wife Kate McTell sometimes joined in on vocals. Folklorist John Lomax recorded McTell in 1940 for the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Song, capturing a remarkable array of blues, ballads, rags, spirituals, and insightful monologues. McTell reactivated his recording career in 1949, cutting for Regal and Atlantic Records. By then, however, his solitary blues seemed a thing of the past. ~ Jas Obrecht -- Jas Obrecht, All-Music Guide

Blind Willie McTell died in Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1959 but his influence can be seen by today's musicians. Bob Dylan wrote the song Blind Willie McTell as a tribute. The Allman Brothers recorded Statesboro Blues, which is one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.

Blind Willie McTell's legacy still lives in the city of Atlanta. A blues bar known simply as Blind Willie's resides in the Virginia/Highlands area for the consummate blues fan to listen to the genre of music the he and his fellow artists developed and inspired.

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