By Mike Greenblatt
“No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” Bob Dylan once said.
William Samuel McTier — otherwise known as Blind Willie McTell — was born in 1901 and died from diabetes, alcoholism, and, ultimately, a stroke in 1959. Too bad he didn’t live another few years. He would, most likely, have enjoyed the benefits of the folk boom of the 1960s that made international stars out of artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Bukka White.
Instead, despite an active recording career for numerous labels under numerous names, McTell was still performing on the streets of Atlanta right up until his death. Old timers there fondly remember him singing and playing guitar for change during the 1950s.
Mostly blind at birth, McTell taught himself 12-string guitar, and it became his instrument of choice. His complex and intricate fingerpicking style was but one facet of his incredible musical prowess. He also played slide guitar and sang some mean ragtime, folk, ballads and blues. His voice was a clear beacon of hurt, a soulful reminder of the kind of life he led. That voice, according to John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records, is one of the reasons McTell is still so revered today.
“His diction and pronunciation is very clear, and that makes listening to his music somewhat easy on the ears, even if you’re not used to black slang in a Southern drawl. Plus, his lyrics are very clever,” Tefteller said.
McTell’s popularity has escalated exponentially since his demise. There’s an Atlanta blues bar named after him, and a Thomson, Ga., annual blues festival bears his name. The song “Blind Willie McTell,” written and recorded by Bob Dylan in 1983 (but not released until 1991), made McTell into a folk hero and prompted a generation or two since to dig up his old recordings. Dylan also referenced McTell — well, one of his aliases — in the second verse of “Highway 61 Revisited,” with the line “Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose.” McTell’s work also has been covered by a variety of admiring artists, including Bob Dylan (“Delia” and “Broke Down Engine”); The Allman Brothers (“Statesboro Blues”) and The White Stripes (“Your Southern Can Is Mine”), who also dedicated the 2000 “De Stijl” album in part to McTell.
One of McTell’s strongest songs is “Death Cell Blues,” recorded in September 1933 for Vocalion. It is chilling in its stark simplicity, haunted vocals and profound lyrics.
Chained down in this dark cell by myself
And my gal she skipped; guess she got somebody else
Well they’ve got me accused for murder
And I haven’t even harmed a man.
Tefteller estimates there are 10 to 15 copies of the original pressing of Vocalion 02577, with only three or four in good condition. “A really nice one will sell for $3,000 or $4,000,” he says, “with a beat-up one going for about $500.”
But the music isn’t the only interesting thing related to the song.
“If you look very carefully at the advertisement that Vocalion Records used for its original release,” Tefteller continues, “that’s not a drawing of Blind Willie. It’s actually Blind Lemon Jefferson. Vocalion ‘borrowed’ that image from Paramount’s ad for Blind Lemon’s ‘Electric Chair Blues’ and did nothing to disguise the fact that it was altered to fit the Blind Willie record!”
According to Tefteller, Blind Willie McTell “is one of the Top 10 blues recording artists of the ’20s and ’30s, and one of the most well-liked today. He wrote a lot of songs that have stood the test of time and he’s been popular with white and black audiences alike.”