Blind Willie McTell - Biography
By J Poet
Blind Willie McTell played the blues, but like Josh White and Big Bill Broonzy he used the blues as a jumping off point for his own singular style of finger picked 12-string guitar. His driving oddly metered rhythms, wild syncopated finger picking, and warm vocals were completely unique and while he never sold many records during his lifetime, his influence on guitar players still reverberates through the years. If folk rock had existed in the 20s, McTell would have felt at home with its combination of tradition and unbridled rowdiness. He recorded sporadically in his lifetime. He made a spate of early recordings on 78 RPMs in the late 20s and early 30s for RCA, Columbia, OKey, Vocalion, Decca and the Library of Congress blues collection, recorded by folklorist John Lomax. In 1949 he was briefly rediscovered and cut sides for Atlantic and Regal as well as Atlanta bookstore owner Ed Rhodes, a session that showed up years later as Blind Willie McTell: Last Session (1960, Prestige).
McTell was born William Samuel McTier in Thomson, GA, around 1898. He was sightless in one eye and soon went totally blind. He played harmonica and accordion before he was six, then picked up the guitar. Both his mother and father played guitar, but his father left the family when he was still young and he lived with various relatives until he was a young man. As soon as he was able, he left home and played in various traveling shows which may be the reason his music is so diverse. He probably picked up sounds and styles most regional musicians were not familiar with. His voice was a bit nasal, but he clearly enunciated the lyrics when he sang, without a noticeable “negro accent” and his high keening style had a trace of old time white Appalachian music in it. He could read Braille, and read and write Braille musical notation, so he was undoubtedly an intelligent, educated man.
McTell was religious and seldom played juke joints, bars or dances. He did play on the streets for tips and at picnics, barbecues and private gatherings. He was a well-known musician in Atlanta, but it’s not known if he made a living as a musician or worked day jobs as well. He started recording in 1927 on both six and 12-string guitar, and while he never had a hit, his records sold well enough to keep companies interested in recording him. His combination of blues, ragtime, gospel, vaudevillian novelty tunes, early country music and folk songs made him a well-rounded entertainer. His singing was full of spoken asides and vocal ad-libs to draw listeners in, foreshadowing the patter of Bob Wills years later, but it’s his guitar work that still continues to astonish listeners. He’ll follow a ten bar phrase with a 14 bar improvisation, without ever loosing his innate sense of time. While many early 12-string players like Lead Belly used the volume of the 12-string to overwhelm listeners, McTell plays softly, spinning out impossibly intricate flurries of notes that make you want to stand up and cheer.
Although he stopped recording hewas an active performer until the end of World War II. There was a brief blues revival in the late 40s and McTell made some recording for Atlantic and Regal, but they were mostly unreleased until years later. He became a pastor at an Atlanta church and died in 1959 of a stroke possibly caused by his drinking and diabetes.
McTell never cut anything that is less than stellar, so any album you pick up will be worth your money. The Best of Willie McTell: Classic Recordings from the 1920’s & 30’s (2004, Yazoo) collects 23 of his hits, although they were shamefully underappreciated at the time. Statesboro Blues: Blind Willie McTell (2003, RCA) is part of the label’s When the Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock’n’Roll series and contains sides he cut for RCA between 1927-1929. The Definitive Willie McTell (1994, Sony Legacy) is two discs of early Columbia and OKey recordings. In 1949 Atlantic cut 13 tunes that mostly stayed in the vaults until they started a massive blues reissue project. Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta Twelve String came out in 1972 and on CD in 1992. In 1956 McTell made one last home recording for Atlanta bookstore owner Ed Rhodes, who was documenting local blues artists, and while McTell’s voice is a bit ragged his picking is still amazing. The tape eventually found its way north and was released as Blind Willie McTell: Last Session (1960, Prestige LP, 1992 OJC CD).