Born William Samuel McTell, May 5, 1901, in Thomson, GA; died of a cerebral hemhorrage, August 19, 1959, in Milledgeville, GA; son of Eddie McTell (a musician) and Minnie Watkins (a guitarist); attended State School for the Blind, Macon, GA, c. 1922-5; attended School for the Blind, NYC, c. 1925-6; married Ruth Kate Williams, c. 1934.
Blind Willie McTell's music is characterized by his clear voice and twelve-string finger picking technique. His crisp, clean guitar lines intertwine with and underline his lyrics. Through his repertoire McTell was able to cater to a wide audience, being adept at playing blues, ragtime, gospel, pop, and country material. While none of his records was a hit, he was able to record prolifically by creating a different pseudonym for each recording scout he encountered.
William Samuel McTell was born on May 5, 1901 in Thompson, Georgia. Despite lifelong blindness McTell knew his way around several major cities, including New York City's subway system, and could distinguish between different denominations of bank notes. There was some confusion over his surname; some sources claimed his real name was "McTear" but a teacher at a blind school he attended inadvertently changed it to "McTell", misunderstanding Willie's diction. However, in a 1977 interview, his wife Kate McTell said that somebody on his father's side of the family disguised their name because they were "big whiskey still people."
Blind Willie McTell learned the guitar from his mother during his early teens. Through his teenage years and early twenties he played in various touring carnivals and shows, including the John Roberts Plantation Show. During this time he also attended various schools for the blind in New York and Georgia where he learned to read Braille. He recorded his first sides for the Victor company in 1927 in Atlanta. These would be the first of many recordings by McTell under various names.
During the late twenties and thirties, McTell appeared before every recording scout who came to Atlanta with his guitar and a new persona. He recorded as "Blind Sammie" for Columbia, "Georgia Bill" for OKeh, "Red Hot Willie Glaze" for Bluebird, and "Blind Willie" for Vocalion. He also recorded and interviewed with John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1940, but that session remained unreleased because the Lomaxes didn't care for McTell's style. Most of Willie's records were solo vocal numbers with his own guitar accompaniment; he also recorded with Curly Weaver, Buddy Moss, and Ruth Day.
Blind Willie McTell married Ruth Kate Williams in 1934. Willie traveled constantly, while Kate stayed home pursuing a career as an army nurse. In a 1977 interview, Kate McTell recalled Willie's response when she asked why he traveled so frequently, "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'. He sure did. I retired with thirty-two years of nurse training at Fort Gordon."
Between 1937 and 1948 McTell made a living playing for tips in various cities across the Eastern seaboard rather than recording. In 1949 McTell went to Atlantic Records' studios in New York City, where Atlantic founder and blues enthusiast Ahmet Ertegun recognized him from records in his own collection. Atlantic released a single pairing two songs McTell recorded years earlier, "Kill It, Kid" and "Broke Down Engine Blues", under the name "Barrelhouse Sammy". Billboard's January, 1950 Rhythm and Blues Record Review column gave the disc a good review. The reviewer considered "Kill It, Kid", "an engaging, raggy blues...with vitality and humor and a jivey guitar accompaniment." "Broke Down Engine Blues" was considered "more conventional", possibly because the updated version is slower, more confident, and more haunting than the original version recorded over twenty years before.
In 1950, Fred Mendelson of Regal Records was scouting for blues talent in Atlanta. Appropriately, Blind Willie McTell found him and recorded a session as Pig n' Whistle Red, named for a barbecue joint where he played requests for tips. This would be his last recording session with his occasional partner Curley Weaver.
Ironically, despite a prolific career of recording under a variety of aliases for any recording scout in town, Blind Willie McTell had to be persuaded to record his last session. After Ed Rhodes, an Atlanta record store owner, played a Leadbelly record for a foreign student, the student returned and informed him that a man down the street was singing in a style similar to Leadbelly's. The singer was Blind Willie McTell, playing for tips behind the Blue Lantern Club. Rhodes, who owned some recording equipment, approached McTell about recording a session. At first, Willie refused, but dropped by Mr. Rhodes's store occasionally over the next few weeks. McTell finally relented, and provided Mr. Rhodes with a reprise of material he'd performed over his lifetime, interspersed with anecdotes about his life and music. The tapes were kept in his store's attic unreleased for a few years. One day while cleaning the attic, well after he had sold his recording equipment, all the tapes Mr. Rhodes made were lying in a trash can. There was only one salvageable tape, which was later released as the Blind Willie McTell's Last Session album on Prestige/Bluesville Records.
Around 1957, according to Kate McTell's 1977 interview, Blind Willie McTell quit singing the blues and became a preacher, singing only spirituals, "He knew he was getting on in age. He said he felt like he was coming to the end of his journey, he was coming back to God". Willie McTell died of a cerebral hemhorrage on August 19, 1959 at the Milledgeville State Hospital in Georgia. Like many classic blues singers, little was known about Blind Willie McTell's life, until blues enthusiast David Evans tracked down Willie's wife, Kate, for a three-part interview published by Blues Unlimited magazine in 1977. This has ensured that details about McTell and many of the musicians he'd known are available for future generations.
Blind Willie McTell did not live to be "rediscovered" during the early 1960's folk-blues revival. However, he did leave behind a durable body of work that has been appreciated by many blues and rock fans; his song "Statesboro Blues" was exposed to millions via a cover versions by Taj Mahal and the Allman Brothers Band. For listeners who crave the original recordings, most of his work is back in print.
by Jim Powers
Blind Willie McTell's Career
Began playing the guitar professionally, c. 1914; toured with John Roberts Plantation Show, c. 1916-17; recorded for several record labels under various names, solo, or with Buddy Moss, Curley Weaver, or Ruth Day, c. 1927-56; played at private parties, dances, parking lots, open-air drive-ins, streets of Atlanta, c. 1927-56; preached at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, c. 1957-59.
Blind Willie McTell's Awards
Posthumously inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, 1990.
- Selective Works
- The Early Years (1927-1933), Yazoo/Shanachie, 1989.
- Blind Willie McTell 1927-1935, Yazoo/Shanachie, 1991.
- The Definitive Blind Willie McTell, Columbia Legacy, 1994.
- Atlanta Twelve-String, Atlantic, 1991.
- Pig n' Whistle Red, Biograph, 1993.
- Last Session, Prestige/Bluesville, 1987.
- "Broke Down Engine Blues" from The Blues, Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, 1993.
- "Southern Can Is Mine" from The Beauty of the Blues, Columbia Legacy, 1991.
- Barlow, William, Looking Up At Down, Temple University Press, 1989.
- Davis, Francis, The History of the Blues, Hyperion, 1995.
- Gart, Galen, First Pressings Vol. 1 (1948-1950), Big Nickel, 1989.
- Guralnick, Peter, The Listener's Guide To The Blues, Facts on File, 1982.
- Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who's Who, Arlington House, 1979.
- Herzhaft, Gerard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
- Oliver, Paul, ed., The Blackwell Guide To Blues Records, Blackwell Reference, 1989.
- Springer, Robert, and Andre J.M. Prevos, Authentic Blues, It's History and Its Themes, Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.
- Periodicals Billboard, January 1950.
- Blues Unlimited, July/August 1977; September/October 1977; November/December 1977.
- Jazz Journal, August, 1950.
- Jazz Report, Vol. 8, Number 6.
- Record Research, June/July 1959.
- Records and Recording, December, 1972.