Blind Willie McTell: The Rough Guide to Blind Willie McTell
As noted in the liner notes of this definitive single-disc compendium, Bob Dylan sang, in a 1983 recording, that “No one can sing the blues/ like Blind Willie McTell.” Dylan placed the country bluesman in the present tense—he sings the blues, not sang —even though the subject of the story had been dead for more than two decades by that time. For Dylan, the inspiration still exists; the rest of us can use this refresher. Born in Georgia around the turn of the last century, McTell was a Piedmont-style fingerpicking guitarist who preferred 12 strings and loved his slide and, although he never received the level of recognition since bestowed on many of his contemporaries, his output is well worth a fresh look. The 25 tracks on the Rough Guide set date from the late-‘20s through the mid-‘30s and run the gamut from spirituals to the risqué, from goodtime rags to the more solemn. The song most likely to be recognized by contemporary audiences is undoubtedly “Statesboro Blues,” released in 1928 on the Victor label and later reborn as an epic Allman Brothers Band jam. McTell’s voice is pitched in the upper register—he’s most comfortable there—and his delivery is eerie, yet somehow still congenial, as he pushes the lyric forward in an insistent manner. Even with “Lay Some Flowers on My Grave,” a 1935 cut, he manages to convey a sense of cheeriness, and after hearing the cheeky “Mama, Let Me Scoop for You,” it’s hard to imagine that any mama wouldn’t have taken him up on the offer.