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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Statesboro Blues - Blind Willie McTell


Blind Willie McTell (born William Samuel McTier May 5, 1898 – August 19, 1959), was an influential Piedmont and ragtime blues singer and guitarist. He played with a fluid, syncopated fingerstyle guitar technique, common among many exponents of Piedmont blues, although, unlike his contemporaries, he came to exclusively use twelve-string guitars. McTell was also an adept slide guitarist, unusual among ragtime bluesmen. His vocal style, a smooth and often laid-back tenor, differed greatly from many of the harsher voice types employed by Delta bluesmen, such as Charlie Patton. McTell embodied a variety of musical styles, including blues, ragtime, religious music, and hokum.

Born blind in the town of Thomson, Georgia, McTell learned how to play guitar in his early teens. He soon became a street performer around several Georgia cities, such as Atlanta and Augusta, and first recorded in 1927 for Victor Records. Although he never produced a major hit record, McTell's recording career was prolific, recording for different labels under different names throughout the 1920s and 30s. In 1940, he was recorded by John Lomax for the Library of Congress's folk song archive. He would remain active throughout the 1940s and 50s, playing on the streets of Atlanta, often with his longtime associate, Curley Weaver. Twice more he recorded professionally. McTell's last recordings originated during an impromptu session recorded by an Atlanta record store owner in 1956. McTell would die three years later after suffering for years from diabetes and alcoholism. Despite his mainly failed releases, McTell was one of the few archaic blues musicians that would actively play and record during the 1940s and 50s. However, McTell never lived to be "rediscovered" during the imminent American folk music revival, as many other bluesmen would.

McTell's influence extended over a wide variety of artists, including The Allman Brothers Band, who famously covered McTell's "Statesboro Blues", and Bob Dylan, who paid tribute to McTell in his 1983 song "Blind Willie McTell"; the refrain of which is, "And I know no one can sing the blues, like Blind Willie McTell". Other artists include Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, The White Stripes, Ralph McTell and Chris Smither.
Born William Samuel McTier in Thomson, Georgia, blind in one eye, McTell had lost his remaining vision by late childhood and attended schools for the blind in the states of Georgia, New York and Michigan. He showed proficiency in music from an early age, first playing harmonica and accordion, learning to read and write music in Braille, and turning to the six-string guitar in his early teens.[2][3] Born into a musical family, both of his parents and an uncle played guitar; he is also a relation of bluesman and gospel pioneer, Thomas A. Dorsey. His father left the family when McTell was still young, and when his mother died in the 1920s, he left his hometown and became a wandering musician, or "songster". He began his recording career in 1927 for Victor Records in Atlanta.

McTell married Ruth Kate Williams, now better known as Kate McTell, in 1934. 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.

In the years before World War II, McTell traveled and performed widely, recording for a number of labels under many different names, including Blind Willie McTell (Victor and Decca), Blind Sammie (Columbia), Georgia Bill (Okeh), Hot Shot Willie (Victor), Blind Willie (Vocalion and Bluebird), Barrelhouse Sammie (Atlantic), and Pig & Whistle Red (Regal). The "Pig 'n Whistle" appellation was a reference to a chain of Atlanta barbeque restaurants, one of which was located on the south side of East Ponce de Leon between Boulevard and Moreland Avenue, which later became a Krispy Kreme. McTell would frequently played for tips in the parking lot of this location. He was also known to play behind the nearby building that later became Ray Lee's Blue Lantern Lounge. McTell's style was singular: 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[citation needed]. He took on the less common and more unwieldy 12-string guitar because of its volume. The style is well documented on John Lomax's 1940 recordings of McTell for the Library of Congress. McTell earned $10 from these sessions, the equivalent of $154.56 in 2011.[4]

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, predominantly 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. Beginning in 1957, McTell occupied himself as a preacher at Atlanta's Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

McTell died in Milledgeville, Georgia, of a stroke in 1959. He was buried at Jones Grove Church, near Thomson, Georgia, his birthplace. A fan paid to have a gravestone erected on his resting place. The name given on his gravestone is Eddie McTier. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1981, and into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990
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