THE COMPLETE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS RECORDS (1940)
1) Just As Well Get Ready; 2) Monologue On Accidents; 3) Boll Weevil; 4) Delia; 5) Dying Crapshooters Blues; 6) Will Fox; 7) I Got To Cross The River Jordan; 8) Monologue On Old Songs; 9) Amazing Grace; 10) Monologue On The History Of The Blues; 11) King Edward Blues; 12) Murderer's Home Blues; 13) Kill-It-Kid Rag; 14) I Got To Cross De River O' Jordan.
There is an extremely interesting moment here, at the very beginning of the record, when John Lomax, armed with vintage recording equipment, is trying to press Blind Willie into remembering «complaining songs», specifically, complaining about «colored people mistreated by whites». Then it sort of turns out that Blind Willie doesn’t know any. Lomax, audibly stupefied, keeps on pushing — “you don’t know any complaining songs? Something like ʽAin’t It Hard To Be A Niggerʼ?” Nope. The only «complaining» songs, says Willie, “have them all together, they have references to everybody”.
Which is totally true, actually, not just in Willie’s case, but almost everybody’s — the racial issue on these pre-war records is practically non-existent, and 99% of the “complaining songs” mostly complain about being down on one’s luck — women problems, job problems, sometimes even political problems, but never skin color problems; and this allows people like Blind Willie McTell and, say, Jimmie Rodgers easily develop a certain spiritual unity, the white man’s problems being essentially the same as the black man’s. And it’s not even a question of tabooing the issue for fear of retribution — it’s simply a fact of accepting segregation as an unshakable norm, something that is now hard to imagine even in those «wild» places where Blind Willie spent his childhood, but was fairly common in 1940.
What was still not all that common in 1940 were travelling ethnographers and musicologists, seeking out «local talent» to help them preserve musical folklore; Lomax had already made his own reputation at the time, but few people followed in his footsteps, since few people were aware that, already back then, «folk wisdom» was on its way out — in a matter of two more decades, it would complete its migration from cotton fields and steel mills to college campuses and Village coffeehouses. It does seem like Blind Willie, who hadn’t been able to get a new record deal for five years already, was aware, and eagerly took the chance. On this relatively short collection he winds his way through a rather diverse selection (none of these songs show up on his official records from 1927 to 1935), occasionally going off into monologues or brief interviews on the history of the blues movement in general and his own role in it in particular.
Nothing on here is essential, but the whole thing could have been much worse. Lomax doesn’t get into Willie’s way all that much, especially after the «complaining songs» fiasco; the monologues are not particularly informative, certainly not for the modern Wikipedianist, but are fortunately short and few (besides, McTell's vision and arrangement of the chronology of the blues is an interesting bit to listen to); and the songs, as I already said, are fairly diverse — ʽDying Crapshooters Bluesʼ is a Jimmie Rodgers «jailhouse-blues» type number, ʽWill Foxʼ is old Appalachean folk dance style or something, ʽKill-It-Kidʼ is Willie's trademark reggae style, ʽI Got To Cross The River Jordanʼ is, understandably, in the gospel vein, and there is even a little original number that Willie dedicated to the honorable King Edward after the abdication crisis of 1936 (nice of Lomax to come along just in time to record it). The man even plays a brief slide guitar version of ʽAmazing Graceʼ, sounding not unlike Blind Willie Johnson (just add some deep moaning and it will be almost like ʽDark Was The Nightʼ).
In the end, it might not be quite a «genuine Blind Willie McTell album» — rather, it's McTell giving his own account on the music he grew up with, kinda like Paul McCartney playing Buddy Holly songs on an acoustic guitar before the camera: useful for kids who ain't never heard of Buddy Holly, but not all that worthy on its own. But, of course, McTell has the clear advantage, since many of these numbers simply weren't recorded in his childhood — and he works all these styles with soul, competence, and humor. Thumbs up.