Blind Willie McTell: Wikis


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Blind Willie McTell

Doing a recording for John Lomax in an Atlanta hotel room, November 1940. Photographed by the archivist's wife, Ruby Lomax
Background information
Birth name William Samuel McTier
Born May 5, 1898(1898-05-05)
Thomson, Georgia, United States
Died August 19, 1959 (aged 61)
Milledgeville, Georgia
Genres Country blues
Piedmont blues
East Coast blues
Instruments Vocals, guitar, harmonica
Years active 1927–1956
Labels Victor, Columbia, Okeh, Vocalion, Decca, Library of Congress, Atlantic, Regal

Blind Willie McTell (May 5, 1898 (sometimes reported as 1901 or 1903) – August 19, 1959) was an influential American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He was a twelve-string finger picking Piedmont blues guitarist, and recorded 149 songs between 1927 and 1956.



Born William Samuel McTier (or McTear[1]) in Thomson, Georgia, blind in one eye, McTell had lost his remaining vision by late childhood, but became an adept reader of Braille. He showed proficiency in music from an early age and learned to play the six-string guitar as soon as he could. 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 busker. He began his recording career in 1927 for Victor Records in Atlanta.[2] .

In the years before World War II, he traveled and performed widely, recording for a number of labels under a different name for each one, including Blind Willie McTell (Victor and Decca), Blind Sammie (Columbia), Georgia Bill (Okeh), Hot Shot Willie (Victor), Blind Willie (Vocalion), Red Hot Willie Glaze (Bluebird), Barrelhouse Sammie (Atlantic) and Pig & Whistle Red (Regal). His 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. 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, for which McTell earned ten dollars.[3]

McTell is unusual, if not unique, among country bluesmen in his ability to play the guitar in both a complex, fingerpicking ragtime style similar to Blind Blake or Blind Boy Fuller (see, e.g., his recording of "Georgia Rag," a cover of Blake's "Wabash Rag"), and a heavier bottleneck blues style ("Three Women Blues"). His playing in both idioms is masterful, fluid and inventive; based on multiple recordings of the same song (for example, "Broke Down Engine"), he never played a song the same way twice. His style could almost be called "stream of consciousness," as he would vary the bar pattern and sometimes even the rhythm and chord progression from verse to verse. McTell was also an excellent accompanist, and recorded many songs with his longtime musical companion, Curley Weaver; their recordings are some of the most outstanding examples of country blues guitar duets. See, for example, "It's a Good Little Thing," or "You Were Born to Die."

In 1934, he married Ruthy Kate Williams (now better known as Kate McTell).[4] 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.

Post-war, 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 into his store with a bottle of corn liquor, where he captured a few final performances on a tape recorder. These were released posthumously on Prestige/Bluesville Records as Blind Willie McTell's Last Session.[5]

McTell died in Milledgeville, Georgia, of a stroke in 1959.

He was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1981.[6]


One of McTell's most famous songs, "Statesboro Blues", has been covered by artists such as Taj Mahal, David Bromberg, The Allman Brothers Band and Ralph McTell, who changed his name on account of liking the song.[7] Jack White of The White Stripes considers McTell an influence (their 2000 album De Stijl was dedicated to him and featured a cover of his song "Your Southern Can Is Mine"), as did Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Bob Dylan has paid tribute to McTell on at least four occasions: Firstly in his 1965 song "Highway 61 Revisited" in the second verse, which begins, "Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose," referring to one of Blind Willie McTell's many recording names; later in "Blind Willie McTell" (recorded in 1983 but released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 in 1991); then with covers of McTell's "Broke Down Engine" and "Delia" on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong.[8] In his song "Po'Boy", off the 2001 album Love & Theft, Dylan again paid homage to McTell by appropriating the line "had to go to Florida dodging them Georgia laws" directly from the latter's "Kill It Kid".[9]

A blues bar in Atlanta is named after him, and regularly features blues musicians and bands. A blues festival in McTell's honor is held annually in his birthplace, Thomson, Georgia.[10]

Complete sessionography

Note: All songs written by McTell except as noted

  • October 18, 1927 – Atlanta, Georgia
    • "Writing Paper Blues"
    • "Stole Rider Blues"
    • "Mama, 'Tain't Long 'for' Day"
    • "Mr. McTell Got the Blues" (take 1)
    • "Mr. McTell Got the Blues" (take 2)
  • October 17, 1928 – Atlanta, Georgia
    • "Three Women Blues"
    • "Dark Night Blues"
    • "Statesboro Blues"
    • "Loving Talking Blues"
  • October 30, 1929 – Atlanta, Georgia (as Blind Sammie)
    • "Atlanta Strut"
    • "Travelin' Blues"
    • "Cigarette Blues"
    • "Come on Around in My Kitchen"
  • October 31, 1929 – Atlanta, Georgia (as Blind Sammie)
    • "Real Jazz Mama"
    • "Kind Mama"
  • November 26, 1929 – Atlanta, Georgia
    • "Death Room Blues"
    • "Drive Away Blues"
    • "Hard Working Mama"
  • November 29, 1929 – Atlanta, Georgia
    • "Blue Sea Blues"
    • "South Georgia Blues"
    • "Mr. McTell's Sorrowful Moan"
    • "Weary Hearted Blues"
    • "Love Changing Blues"
  • April 17, 1930 – Atlanta, Georgia (as Blind Sammie)
    • "Talkin' to Myself"
    • "Razor Ball"
  • October 23, 1931 – Atlanta, Georgia (as Blind Sammie)
    • "Southern Can Is Mine"
    • "Broke Down Engine Blues"
    • "Experience Blues" (with Ruth Day, a.k.a. Ruth Kate McTell)
    • "Painful Blues" (with Ruth Day)
  • October 31, 1931 – Atlanta, Georgia (as Georgia Bill)
    • "Stomp Down Rider"
    • "Scarey Day Blues"
    • "Low Rider's Blues"
    • "Georgia Rag" (with Curley Weaver, 2nd guitar & vocal)
  • February 22, 1932 – Atlanta, Georgia (as Hot Shot Willie)
    • "Rollin' Mama Blues"
    • "Lonesome Day Blues"
    • "Mama, Let Me Scoop for You"
    • "Searching the Desert for the Blues"
  • September 14, 1933 – New York, New York (as Blind Willie)
    • "Lay Some Flowers on My Grave"
    • "Warm It Up to Me" (with Curley Weaver)
    • "It's Your Time to Worry"
    • "It's a Good Little Thing"
  • September 18, 1933 – New York, New York (as Blind Willie)
    • "Lord Have Mercy, If You Please"
    • "Don't You See How This World Made a Change"
    • "Savannah Mama"
    • "Broke Down Engine"
    • "Broke Down Engine No.2" (take 1)
    • "Broke Down Engine No.2" (take 2)
    • "My Baby's Gone"
  • September 19, 1933 – New York, New York (as Blind Willie)
    • "Love-Makin' Mama" (take 1)
    • "Love-Makin' Mama" (take 2)
    • "Let Me Play with Your Yo-Yo"
    • "Hard to Get"
    • "Death Room Blues" (take 1)
    • "Death Room Blues" (take 2)
    • "Death Cell Blues"
    • "Lord, Send Me An Angel" (take 1)
    • "Lord, Send Me An Angel" (take 2)
    • "Snatch That Thing"
  • September 21, 1933 – New York, New York (as Blind Willie)
    • "B & O Blues No.2" (take 1)
    • "B & O Blues No.2" (take 2)
    • "Weary Hearted Blues"
    • "Bell Street Lightnin'"
    • "Southern Can Mama" (with Curley Weaver)
    • "Runnin' Me Crazy""
    • "East St. Louis Blues"
  • April 23, 1935 – Chicago, Illinois
    • "Ain't It Grand to Be a Christian" (with Ruth Day)
    • "We Got to Meet Death One Day"
    • "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around" (with Ruth Day)
    • "I Got Religion, I'm So Glad" (with Ruth Day)
    • "Dying Gambler" (with Ruth Day)
    • "God Don't Like It" (with Ruth Day)
    • "Bell Street Blues"
    • "Let Me Play With Your Yo-Yo"
  • April 25, 1935 – Chicago, Illinois
    • "Lay Some Flowers On My Grave"
    • "Death Room Blues"
    • "Ticket Agent Blues" (with Ruth Day)
    • "Dyin' Doubter Blues"
    • "Cold Winter Day"
    • "Your Time to Worry"
    • "Cooling Board Blues"
    • "Hillbilly Willie's Blues"
  • June 26, 1936 – Augusta, Georgia
    • "Married Life's a Pain"
  • July 1, 1936 – Augusta, Georgia
    • "Undertaker's Blues"
    • "Mama Keep Steppin'"
    • "Maybe Some Day"
  • November 5, 1940 – Atlanta, Georgia (John Lomax session)
    • "Just As Well Get Ready, You Got to Die"
    • "Climing High Mountains, Tryin' to Get Home"
    • "Monologue on accidents"
    • "Boll Weevil"
    • "Delia"
    • "Dying Crapshooter's Blues"
    • "Will Fox"
    • "I Got to Cross the River Jordan"
    • "Monologue on old songs"
    • "Old Time Religion, Amen"
    • "Amazing Grace" (trad.)
    • "Monologue on the history of the blues"
    • "Monologue on life as a maker of records"
    • "Monologue on himself"
    • "King Edward Blues"
    • "Murderer's Home Blues"
    • "Kill-It Rag"
    • "Chainey"
    • "I Got to Cross de River o' Jordan"
  • Unknown Date, 1949 – Atlanta, Georgia (as Pig & Whistle Red, with Curley Weaver)
    • "Love Changin' Blues"
    • "Savannah Mama"
    • "Talkin' to You Mama"
    • "East St. Louis"
    • "Wee Midnight Hours"
    • "Pal of Mine" (take 1)
    • "Pal of Mine" (take 2)
    • "Hide Me in Thy Bosom"
    • "Honey It Must Be Love"
    • "Sending Up My Timber" (take 1)
    • "Sending Up My Timber" (take 2)
    • "Lord Have Mercy, If You Please"
    • "It's My Desire"
    • "Trying to Get Home"
    • "Don't Forget It"
    • "Good Little Thing"
    • "You Can't Get Stuff No More"
  • Unknown Date, November 1949 – Atlanta, Georgia (as Barrelhouse Sammy, The Country Boy)
    • "Kill It Kid"
    • "The Razor Ball"
    • "Little Delia"
    • "Broke Down Engine Blues"
    • "Dying Crapshooter Blues"
    • "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" (Clarence Smith)
    • "Blues Around Midnight"
    • "On the Cooling Board"
    • "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" (trad.)
    • "I Got to Cross the River Jordan"
    • "You Got to Die"
    • "Ain't It Grand to Live a Christian"
    • "Pearly Gates"
    • "Soon This Morning"
    • "Last Dime Blues"
  • Unknown Date, Fall, 1956 – Atlanta, Georgia ("Last Session")
    • "Baby, It Must Be Love"
    • "The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues"
    • "Don't Forget It"
    • "Kill It Kid"
    • "That Will Never Happen No More"
    • "Goodbye Blues"
    • "Salty Dog"
    • "Early Life"
    • "Beedle Um Bum"
    • "A Married Man's a Fool"
    • "A to Z Blues"
    • "Wabash Cannonball" (J.A. Roff)
    • "Pal of Mine"

Partial discography

  • Blind Willie McTell: 1927-1933 The Early Years - Yazoo L-1005 (1968)
  • Blind Willie McTell: 1927-1935 - Yazoo L-1037 (1974)
  • Death Cell Blues - Biograph BLP-C-14 (1973)
  • Trying To Get Home - Biograph BLP-12008
  • Love Changin' Blues - Biograph BLP-12035
  • 1940: The Legendary Library of Congress Session - Melodeon MLP-7323 (1966)
  • Blues In The Dark - MCA 1368 (1983)
  • Atlanta Twelve String - Atlantic SD-7224 (1972) - 'Barrelhouse Sammy' 1949 recordings.
  • Last Session - Prestige PR-7809
  • The Definitive Blind Willie McTell 1927–1935 on Catfish Records (KATCD229) - Presents the complete recordings (including pseudonymous works) from the period 1927–1935.
  • The Classic Years 1927–1940 on JSP Records (JSP7711) omits some recordings found on the previous set but adds his 1940 session for the Library of Congress.
  • The Definitive Blind Willie McTell on SonyLegacy Recordings (C2K-53234) includes songs recorded for Columbia and its subsidiaries OKeh and Vocalion. It has several previously unissued takes and has extensive liner notes by David Evans. It does, however, omit "Statesboro Blues," probably McTell's noted song, because it was recorded for Victor.
  • Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 1 - Document Records (Austria) DOCD-5006.
  • Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 2 - Document Records (Austria) DOCD-5007.
  • Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 3 - Document Records (Austria) DOCD-5008.
    • These three discs, covering 1927-1935, were also issued in a box set as Statesboro Blues (DOCD-5677)
  • The Best of Blind Willie McTell on Yazoo - selections of 1920s and 1930s recordings - Yazoo-2071
  • 1940: Complete Library of Congress Recordings - RST Records (Austria) BDCD-6001.
  • Blind Willie McTell & Curley Weaver: The Post-War Years 1949-1950 - RST Records (Austria) BDCD-6014.
  • Blind Willie McTell: Last Session - Released on CD in 1992 for Fantasy's Original Blues Classics label.


  1. ^ University of North Carolina
  2. ^ Justin Green - Musical Legends (ISBN 0-86719-587-8)
  3. ^ ibid
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Blind Willie McTell". bluesnet. Retrieved 2006-11-17. 
  6. ^ Blues Foundation :: Inductees
  7. ^ Hockenhull, Chris. "Streets of London: The Official Biography of Ralph McTell", p. 40. Northdown, 1997. ISBN 1-900711-02-8.
  8. ^ In his sleeve notes for World Gone Wrong, Dylan wrote: "'Broke Down Engine' is a Blind Willie McTell masterpiece... it's about Ambiguity, the fortunes of the privileged elite, flood control — watching the red dawn not bothering to dress.(sic)'
  9. ^ Kill it Kid, Last Session, Bluesville BV 1040, Released 1962
  10. ^
  • Charters, Samuel Sweet as the Showers of Rain (Oak Publications) pp 120–131
  • Gray, Michael (2007) Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: in search of Blind Willie McTell (Bloomsbury) ISBN 978-0-7475-6560-4

External links

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