BLIND WILLIE McTELL: COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS, VOL. 1 (1927-1931)
1) Writin' Paper Blues; 2) Stole Rider Blues; 3) Mama, 'Tain't Long Fo' Day; 4) Mr. McTell Got The Blues (take 1); 5) Mr. McTell Got The Blues (take 2); 6) Three Women Blues; 7) Dark Night Blues; 8) Statesboro Blues; 9) Loving Talking Blues; 10) Atlanta Strut; 11) Travelin' Blues; 12) Come On Around To My House Mama; 13) Kind Mama; 14) Teasing Brown; 15) Drive Away Blues; 16) This Is Not The Stove To Brown Your Bread; 17) Love Changing Blues; 18) Talkin' To Myself; 19) Razor Ball; 20) Southern Can Is Mine; 21) Broke Down Engine Blues; 22) Stomp Down Rider; 23) Scarey Day Blues.
The usual way, these days, to learn about Blind Willie McTell is through Bob Dylan — you have to become enough of a fan to get around to The Bootleg Series, hear how "no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell", and form yourself the image of an old, weary, troubled, Old Testament-style blueswailer, lambasting the evils of society with his art as nobody listens and the hopelessly corrupt world crumbles all around his blind eyes and rusty guitar.
Then you finally develop the incentive to go check out the real Blind Willie McTell, and if you only came to him after the Dylan song (like I did, although the two experiences weren't directly connected), you are in for quite a shock. The real Willie McTell, not the one invented by Dylan, but the one who was actually born in Thomson, Georgia, on May 5, 1898, was nothing like that image. Yes, he could occasionally sing slow, moderately depressed blues, but in general, the music he played was light, ragtime-influenced Piedmont blues, sung in a sweet, almost «romantic» tenor that could even be mistaken for a white singer's voice.
(To get off the Dylan topic — if you really want my opinion, I think that the protagonist of ʽBlind Willie McTellʼ is not only a «collective-allegorical» figure, but is really much closer in attitude to Blind Willie Johnson, who was just as big an influence on Dylan as McTell and probably even more than that, in the early days at least. It's simply that "no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie Johnson" does not fit into the song's rhythm-and-rhyme structure, and trivia like that never bothered Bob for one second. He did cover McTell's repertoire with ʽBroke Down Engineʼ and ʽDeliaʼ, but only ten years after the original recording of ʽBlind Willie McTellʼ).
Anyway, Willie McTell was twenty-nine years old when he first entered Victor Records' studio in Atlanta, and, unlike many, many other bluesmen of the time who were more or less the same age when they started out, Willie sounds exactly his age: in a blues world of raspers, howlers, growlers, and grumblers he comes across as almost a crooner, except that there is a light, pleasant nasal twang to his voice that prevents it from becoming overtly sweet and sappy.
Arguably, the voice helps Willie to establish an even sharper identity than his playing — which is perfectly adequate for a Piedmont-style picker, but its only truly outstanding aspect is that McTell mostly uses a 12-string guitar, so the overall sound is «fuller» and «busier», yet also more «fussy» than, say, Blind Boy Fuller's; to each his own choice of favorite. Every now and then, though, Willie is practicing his inventiveness — nowhere more so than on ʽAtlanta Strutʼ, a total classic of the ragtime blues genre where Willie's guitar gradually builds up a complete picture of life bustling on the streets of Atlanta, from crowing roosters to slide-pickin' passers by.
Sympathetic, danceable, bouncy ragtime entertainment stuff is certainly Willie's major trade during these early years: ʽCome On Around To My Houseʼ, ʽKind Mamaʼ, ʽRazor Bluesʼ, and ʽSouthern Can Is Mineʼ are all highlights of the genre, even if all are essentially interchangeable and never venture far away from standard formula. But compare Blind Boy Fuller's ʽLog Cabin Bluesʼ with McTell's ʽCome On Around To My Houseʼ (essentially the same song) and McTell clearly emerges as the more lyrical, «frail» type. It's hard to imagine ladies swooning over Fuller, but Willie must have been quite a charmer.
Of the more straightforward blues numbers, ʽStatesboro Bluesʼ is quite well known for its popularization by the Allman Brothers, but, as you can probably tell, the original has almost nothing to do with the cover — McTell turns it into a mandolin-like ringfest, where Duane Allman would later turn it into a launchpad for some mighty slide riff exploration. It is rather ʽBroke Down Engineʼ that already sounds like a highlight here, decades before receiving the Dylan treatment — one of the most acutely «stressed» numbers in Willie's repertoire. And again, even though the song is built on a memorable guitar line, regularly interrupted by gloomy bass notes, it is the voice that takes the cake: Willie cannot make it rumble, but he can make it tremble, and when he is not conveying lightheartedness and happiness, he can sure as heck convey «little man» insecurity and paranoia. In such moments, he sometimes ends up reminding me of Ray Davies circa Muswell Hillbillies, regardless of how appropriate the comparison really is.
Overall, it's fairly hard to talk about individual songs, as usual, but, unlike similar collections by Blind Boy Fuller, McTell's recordings, assembled in chronological order, are easier to listen to without skipping track after track. It might have something to do with his vocal versatility, or, perhaps, with the relatively high amount of playing freedom he allowed himself — paying less attention to total precision and more to expressivity. In any case, the presence of ʽAtlanta Strutʼ alone is sufficient ground for a thumbs up, and when you have it on the same disc with ʽBroke Down Engineʼ and ʽStatesboro Bluesʼ, not even a whole bunch of languid filler could pull them back down.