Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Throughout his career, Bob Dylan has been a very prolific songwriter. The writing of songs often occurs at a much earlier date than the studio recordings and the songs have to be stored for later access. The lyrics aren’t a problem – Dylan usually writes them down on a sheet of paper. The music is quite another thing and very few artists have the knowledge required to actually write out the sheet music for a song. The easiest way is simply to record it, even if it’s just with one instrument, and any arrangements can be worked out later during the formal recording.

“Blind Willie McTell” was first recorded in 1983 in a rough demo version with Dylan singing and playing piano, accompanied only by Mark Knopfler on guitar.. It is a singular irony that this song, whose stature has grown steadily and which is sure to be remembered as one of Dylan’s most perfect creations, never appeared on a studio album. It was removed from the “Infidels” album (1983) for unclear reasons and the original demo version surfaced in 1991 on the third disc of Dylan’s so-called “bootleg series.” The Band, long-time associates of Dylan, started performing the song during their live concerts and Dylan himself followed suit. All these live versions are played at a generally uptempo pace. My arrangement is played as a funereal dirge out of respect for the song’s musical antecedent, “St. James Infirmary.”

Yank Rachell et Sleepy John Estes

Yank Rachell and Sleepy John Estes

Playing “Blind Willie McTell” also gives me the opportunity to play some blues mandolin, not a common choice of instrument when looking at the genre. James “Yank” Rachell (1903-1997) created the vocabulary of the blues mandolin during his long association with Sleepy John Estes (1899-1977). In the 1970s and later years, the blues mandolin was raised to an art form by the magnificent work of Ry Cooder.

Blind Willie McTell

Blind Willie McTell

William Samuel McTier (1898-1959) not only recorded as Blind Willie McTell but under several other names – at the time, record companies thought that a known artist using a different name made him a “new” artist and the public always wanted something new. The artist himself, particularly any black artist, had no say in this policy. Black artists were viewed and treated as the company’s “property.” Consequently, McTell also recorded as Blind Sammie (for Columbia Records), Georgia Bill (for Okeh Records), Hot Shot Willie (for Victor Records), Blind Willie (for the Vocalion and Bluebird labels), Barrelhouse Sammie (for Atlantic Records), and Pig & Whistle Red (for Regal Records). “Pig & Whistle” referred to a chain of barbecue restaurants in Atlanta and McTell often played for tips in the parking lot of the local Pig & Whistle.

Born in Thomson, Georgia, McTell was blind in one eye at birth and lost any remaining sight while still a child. He came from a musical family and learned the guitar from his mother, eventually becoming fluent in the Piedmont and ragtime fingerpicking styles. Unlike his contemporaries, he used a 12-string guitar exclusively so he could be heard through the city noises. He is best remembered for the classic “Statesboro Blues,” which launched the career of both Taj Mahal and The Alman Brothers Band. Except for a couple of excursions to record up north, McTell rarely left his native Georgia. In his last years, McTell was a preacher at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta and he died in 1959 of a stroke brought on by diabetes and alcoholism. He never had the chance to be “rediscovered” during the folk and blues revival of the 1960s.

As for the lyrics, Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” is a palette of cryptic images, suggesting the Deep South of the 19th century, the Civil War and the horrors of post-war Reconstruction, a policy whereby Abraham Lincoln attempted to bring the southern states back into the Union. Following Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson became president and he and the Southern Democrats adamantly opposed any attempts at civil rights for freed slaves, thereby negating much of what Lincoln had tried to achieve.

L'hôtel St. James

The St. James Hotel

The lyrics of “Blind Willie McTell” establish New Orleans as the book ends of the song. The city is mentioned in the first verse and the last verse makes a reference to the St. James Hotel, a well-known New Orleans landmark. This also forms a link with “St. James Infirmary,” an American folk song of anonymous origin on which Dylan’s song is based. The song “St. James Infirmary” is also frequently associated with Louis Armstrong, New Orleans’ most famous son.

Dylan started out singing the song with a first verse reference to Jerusalem. Over the years, this changed to “New Jerusalem,” a biblical reference to the Jewish mystical understanding of heaven. The “Blind Willie McTell” lyrics offer up many stark images, like those that refer to the American Indian (First Nations) Wars and the slave trade. The reference to “taking down the tents” conjures up the traveling medicine shows that Blind Willie McTell played in as a youth. These shows went from town to town, offering free entertainment while peddling fraudulent and often harmful patent remedies. The reference to plantations burning evokes General William Sherman’s Civil War sweep through Georgia and the Carolinas. “Sherman’s March,” as it came to be known, was the world’s first experiment in total warfare. Its aim was to break the morale of the citizens and their will to resist by destroying roads, railways, factories, mills, barns, and thousands of acres of cotton and other crops.

In my arrangement of Dylan’s song, I play a 12-string guitar to honour Blind Willie McTell and his instrument of choice. Alrick’s eloquent bass solo towards the end of the song is a two-verse rendition of the “St. James Infirmary” melody.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic 12-string guitar, mandolin
Alrick Huebener – upright bass

Blind Willie McTell

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