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The Rough Guide to Blind Willie McTell

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The Rough Guide to Blind Willie McTell
The Rough Guide to Blind Willie McTell


'Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell' sang Bob Dylan in his 1983 heartfelt dedication to the Atlanta bluesman. This is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest of the early blues pioneers, who was blessed with an exquisite voice and a sublime talent for the twelve-string guitar. Born in Georgia in 1901, McTell was something of an anomaly in that he exploded every archetype about what a blues musician should be. He was no Robert Johnsonesque devil-dealing womaniser and didn't lose his sight in a jook joint brawl, but was a resourceful and articulate man with a razor-sharp wit and religious mind who became an adept professional musician. Blind from birth or early infancy, he never behaved as if blindness handicapped him, as he travelled widely and recorded more than 120 titles throughout his career. His voice was soft, clear and expressive and his musical tastes were influenced by blues, ragtime, gospel, hillbilly and popular music of the day. At a time when most blues musicians were poorly educated and rarely travelled, McTell was an exception. Willie learned to play the guitar from his mother and despite his lack of sight ran away in his teens to play in touring carnivals and medicine shows. He later returned home and was sent to blind schools in New York and Macon, Georgia where he learned to read both text and music braille. By the mid-1920s McTell was already an accomplished musician in Atlanta, playing at house parties and fish fries. He had also traded in his standard six-string acoustic guitar for a twelve-string guitar, which was popular among Atlanta musicians because of the extra volume it provided for playing on city streets. McTell's early recording sessions produced such classics as 'Southern Can Is Mine', 'Statesboro Blues', 'Georgia Rag', 'Broke Down Engine Blues' and 'Mama, 'Tain't Long Fo' Day', all of which are characterized by the incredible interplay between his warm, smooth voice and fluid guitar technique. With a voice charged with extraordinary sensitivity he's able to convey a variety of moods from deep pathos to broad humour, as he draws us into his world of corn whiskey, teasing browns, passenger trains and stomp down riders. Unlike the mechanical delivery of many early country blues artists, McTell was able to give each of his blues songs and rags a distinctive flavour, and in true songster fashion could draw on a massive repertoire of material. Although he never produced a major hit record, he had a prolific recording career with different labels and under different names such as Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill and Hot Shot Willie. In 1934 McTell married Ruth Kate Williams, with whom he recorded some duets including the gospel inspired 'God Don't Like It' which warns about hypocritical preachers. He also teamed up with other blues artists including fellow East Coast guitarist Curley Weaver, who accompanies him on the lively 'Warm It Up To Me'. Unfortunately, McTell died in obscurity in 1959, just before the folk-blues revival got underway, when many other original bluesmen were rediscovered. Although his song 'Statesboro Blues' was exposed to millions via cover versions by Taj Mahal and the Allman Brothers band, one can only imagine the impact that he would have had on the new generation of young white audiences had he survived. Luckily, we are blessed by a recorded legacy which lays bare both the personality and musical brilliance of this most remarkable of pre-war blues artists. Blind Willie McTell was more than just the King of Georgia Blues, he channelled the musical mosaic of the nation.


  1. Name
  2. Southern Can Is Mine
  3. Broke Down Engine Blues
  4. Stomp Down Rider
  5. Love Changing Blues
  6. Travelin' Blues
  7. Lay Some Flowers On My Grave
  8. Statesboro Blues
  9. Georgia Rag
  10. Mama, 'Tain't Long Fo' Day
  11. Atlanta Strut
  12. Lord, Send Me An Angel
  13. Warm It Up To Me
  14. God Don't Like It
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