Blind Willie McTell
Born with one bad eye, he went blind in the other.
Bob Dylan once wrote, “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” Who am I to argue with that?
Thanks to YouTube, I’ve had the chance to hear some of McTell’s tunes. Seems to me the quintessential Blind Willie recording is “You Was Born to Die” (To hear it, click here.)
“Born to Die” is infused with the authentic and unvarnished DNA of its era — as if you and a friend were walking down the street on a hot summer afternoon and just happened across Willie and a female friend jammin’ on the porch of a small bungalow.
The song is straight-forward: a three-chord progression, the foundational framework of so many bluesy creations. It’s a home-brewed batch of tinny strums, string-slides, and slick finger-pickin’. The vocal is clear, confident, and super cool — in that southern, street-wise way.
William Samuel McTier was born May 5, between two creeks, known as Big Briar and Little Briar, just a half-mile shy of 10 miles from Thomson, Georgia. Some say the year was 1898; others say it was 1901—either way, he was born with one bad eye and went blind in the other.
Wiki says he went to a number of specialty schools where he learned to read and write music in Braille. He died of a stroke in his home state of Georgia on Aug. 19, 1959, at age 61.
A documentary created by David Fulmer for Georgia Public Television (1997) described Willie as “an outdoor child born out of wedlock” to Minnie Watkins, age 14, and Eddie McTier, gambler and moonshiner. According to the documentary, “A few months after the baby was born, Eddie was gone.” (To see Fulmer’s film, click here.)
William McTier was known by various names: Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Hot Shot Willie, Blind Willie, Barrelhouse Sammy, Pig & Whistle Red, Blind Doogie, Red Hot Willie Glaze, Red Hot Willie, Eddie McTier, and, ultimately, Blind Willie McTell. (Word is Willie went from McTier to McTell because that’s how he learned to say his last name so that’s how people spelled it.)
There are various reasons for McTell’s multi-name legacy—for one thing, it was a slick way to get out of a contract. (If Barrelhouse Sammy got sucked into a bad deal, no problem. Georgia Bill could walk down the street and sign a new one.)
Though Willie is known primarily as a guitar-picker, his musical journey began with the harmonica and accordion. In his early teens, he picked up a six-string, and eventually became a street performer. Later he played 12-string. He recorded his first tune in 1927 and his last in 1956. Though he was productive and creative during that period—recording more than 85 songs—he never hit the big time. No matter. He’s remembered anyway.
For one thing, in the 1970s, Willie’s “Statesboro Blues” was revived and refurbished by The Allman Brothers Band. In 2005, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the band’s version #9 on its list of “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ranked it #57 on its “100 Songs of the South.”
For another, Robert Allen Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) wrote a song about him in 1983. The most notable line: “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” (To hear that tune, click here.)
In addition to the Allman Brothers and Dylan, here are some other artists McTell influenced: The White Stripes, Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Chris Smither.
In 1981 Willie was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame and, in 1990, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
By the way, each year there’s a Blind Willie McTell Festival. It takes place one mile north of Interstate 20 in Willie’s hometown of Thomson, Georgia, off Exit 172. This year (#27) the festival is on Saturday, May 2, 2020. Gates open 11 a.m. Music starts at Noon. Organizers describe it as “a very kid-friendly event”; however, they add, “No pets, please.” For more information about the festival, click here.
Blind Willie had a way of a mixin’ and matchin’ music that others played and adapting to his own particular style—whether it was Country blues, Piedmont blues, ragtime, Delta blues, or gospel. Here’s how he described his process:
“I jump ’em from other writers, but I arrange ’em my own way.”
It’s a formula that worked well enough to make Blind Willie memorable all these years later, especially to blues lovers in Thomson, Georgia.