Willie McTell was a Piedmont musician, remarkable not only for his powerful, clean and crisp 12-string fingerstyle technique and the ability to jump between ragtime, blues, slide, gospel, country and popular music; but also for his vocals, which sing through clear as a bell. This ability to change styles allowed him to record prolifically, under a variety of pseudonyms.
McTell was born blind in one eye in Thompson, Georgia in 1901. He lost his sight completely by late childhood, quickly learning to read Braille. (Not only did he become an accomplished musical theorist, he was one of the few musicians who could read and write music fluently using Braille.) He had a great aptitude for music early on, and learned to play the guitar very quickly.
His father left when he was still quite young, and his mother died in 1920 leaving him alone. He left his hometown at the age of 19 to become a traveling performer. Very little is known about these years, but somewhere along the way he adopted and mastered the seldom used 12 string guitar, and because of its volume chose to make this his main instrument. He recorded his first sides for Atlanta based Victor Records in 1927.
By the early 30’s McTell was auditioning for every talent scout that came to town using a different alias. He recorded as “Blind Sammie” for Columbia, “Georgia Bill” for OKeh, “Red Hot Willie Glaze” for Bluebird, and “Blind Willie” for Vocalion. He nearly caught his big break when John and Alan Lomax interviewed and recorded him for their Library of Congress collections, but the session was shelved because the Lomax’s didn’t care for his style. (This was posthumously released as Complete Library of Congress Recordings (1940) After his marriage to an army nurse named Ruth Kate Williams in 1934, McTell didn’t slow down and continued traveling and playing, seldom staying home for very long. According to Kate, “He said ‘Baby, I was born a rambler. I’m gonna ramble until I die, but I’m preparing you to live after I’m gone’
Later in life McTell began augmenting his more rough and tumble blues tunes with gospel and spirituals, as if sensing the end was near he wanted to make peace. The resulted in some incredibly soulful and touching gospel music, which contrasted oddly to songs like ‘Southern Can’ which would sometimes show up beside them on his recordings. By 1957 he had given up the blues completely and become a preacher, singing only spirituals.
Although McTell recorded literally hundreds of songs over his career and has inspired and influenced countless musicians, he met with very little commercial success during his lifetime. He died too young, suffering a fatal stroke in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1959. Unfortunately he missed out on the great revivals of the 60’s, his performances would have been legendary.
As with a lot of the musicians we discuss here, its hard to identify any one album as ‘definitive,’ they all have something to offer, even if it’s alternate versions of songs you already know. Here are a few recommendations which highlight different aspects of his style, and some of our favorite performances.
Doing that Atlanta Strut 1927-1935
If you’re new to the music of Willie McTell, this is the perfect album to test the waters with. Some of his best recorded sides from his early years, this album includes several gems that somehow didn’t make it to the Classic Years box set. The fire, passion, and technical prowess displayed on this album are unrivaled. From the guitar heroics of the title track Atlanta Strut, to the spine-tingling duet with his wife Ruth Day a.k.a. Ruth Kate Mctell God don’t like it, this is one album that will never stray far from the stereo.
Perhaps a little overkill for the casual listener, this box set contains a huge collection of his early years recordings, including the Lomax’s Library of Congress Recordings. Great variety and fantastic performances, this captures McTell in his early prime. This is a must have for fans.
This is a brilliant set of recordings from the late 40’s, perhaps lacking the fire of youth it more than makes up for it with the fire of experience, refined and powerfully flawless guitar playing, beautiful vocals and the incredible recording quality. A great combination of blues and gospel, and possible some of the greatest performances ever captured of these songs.
This is a 50’s era recording of Willie McTell and his occasional partner Curley Weaver, named for the BBQ joint where they used to play for tips. This recording was unheard of until it resurfaced in 1993. The playing and recording quality on this album are excellent, one of the best sounding recordings from his career. The interplay and precision between the playing and vocals of McTell and Weaver is a thing of beauty. A rare glimpse into the later years of his career, this album contains some interesting takes on some old standards and some of his originals.
For Further Study:
The Guitar of Blind Willie McTell 12-string blues & ragtime guitar (DVD) by Ernie Hawkins
Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell