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Monday, July 16, 2012

Blind Willie McTell: The Complete Library Of Congress Records


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.

Check "The Complete Library Of Congress Recordings" on Amazon (CD)


  1. Since I have something fresh on my mind I must discuss, and since a) I do not have my own website on which I can discuss things and b) nobody comments on these Blind Willie McTell reviews anyway, I need to rave. You remember the revolutionary Procol Harum epic "In Held 'Twas In I", don't you? I have been listening to it a lot lately, and I have come to the conclusion that it is an absolute masterpiece.
    Even though nobody cares, let me explain. Reviewers often want to put down the suite and say that, although it has some really good moments, much of it is "boring" and, verbatim from your past review, "they must have thought its flaws would be less evident in the light of its groundbreakingness, but time lays open all the traps". You and John McFerrin are pretty much in agreement here, I think. But you're entirely missing the point!
    This suite confused me so much for a really long time. The "'Twas Teatime at the Circus" part and the interlude between "In the Autumn of My Madness" and "Look to Your Soul" kept, like, LAUGHING at me, like I was missing something HUGE. So I went to read your review, then John McFerrin's, and I noticed that one of the comments on John's page suggested that "Glimpses of Nirvana" was "poking fun" at the "pretentiousness" involved. So I went to and searched it up, and in the comments was yet another clue, and when I read the lyrics, I got it. The whole suite is a gigantic joke.
    First, they wanted to make the whole thing seem as pretentious as possible by extending it to 17 minutes, giving it a "narrative" opening, and naming sections of it "Glimpses of Nirvana", "Look to Your Soul", and "Grand Finale". They wanted to make it seem as puffed up as possible- they wanted to make fun of "serious" music as a whole!
    Second, look at those lyrics! Right in "Glimpses of Nirvana" (which I've noticed has another weird thing about it, too- Part II rhymes and Part I does not), you get the line, "...Even though the words which I use are pretentious and make you cringe with embarrassment...". This makes the other lines, which look pretentious and stupid as all get-out, look hilarious and parodic. "Wallowing in a morass of self-despair made only more painful by the knowledge that all I am is of my own making"? "Well, my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn't it?"! Now we're making fun of ourselves and our (in some opinions) lack of ability to write lyrics!
    These lyrics, plus some other stupidly pretentious ones, make the deadly pretentious music hilarious too. And in "'Twas Teatime at the Circus", the most obvious thing is, "And though the crowd clapped furiously/desperately, they could not see the joke". That is a DEAD GIVEAWAY. They're making fun of us, too! That must have been DANGEROUS back in 1968. Also, "Look to Your Soul" is just WAY too preachy to be serious. And the "Grand Finale"? Simply CALLING it that (I'm looking at you, Kansas, with your joke, the "Magnum Opus") acknowledges the hilarity of the whole thing, even though it SEEMS super-serious.
    There's one more thing, too. Before the EVIL guitar line before "Look to Your Soul", you have "In the Autumn of My Madness", and after that you have a car crash, a siren, and people crying out, "Paul! Paul! Paul!". This is HILARIOUS. This is a "Paul is Dead" joke, because if you remember correctly, Paul McCartney allegedly died in November (AN AUTUMNAL MONTH) from a car crash. Now we're making fun of the gullibility of people in general!

  2. But NONE of this would be even worth talking about if the music weren't so DANG awesome. Whatever you say about "Nirvana", I think the musical aspects of it are excellent, "trying" to be "scary" and "mystical" and ending up as absolutely hilarious, with the sitar (!) and the brilliant little melody between the two bits sung by the sitar, then the band. Then, "'Twas Teatime at the Circus" is just so much fun, and makes use of that famous little "circus melody". How can you like "Mabel", but not this?
    "In the Autumn of My Madness" is REALLY nice, with an excellent vocal melody sung by Fisher, and some lines like, "Bring all my friends unto me and I'll strangle them with words [sic!]", along with awesome tension-raising organ-dominated interludes. "Look to Your Soul", though, is positively excellent, even though most people like to call it "boring". It starts with that DEMONIC guitar line, then goes with this tritonal "scary" bit, complete with the guitar playing the "Nirvana" melody, but then, a harpsichord comes in, and we get a real song. More hilariously stupid lyrics, of course, but the main chord sequence and melody are AWESOME, and the harpsichord only helps with the autumnal mood and such, and a wonderful climax with, "It's all so simple really if you just look to your SOOOOOOUUUL! YEEEEAAAAHHHHH!". Wow.
    Then, of course, there's the "Grand Finale", which is EXTREMELY grand, and sounds very much like "Repent Walpurgis" but doesn't rip it off completely, and the guitar solo is flat-out amazing.
    So you see, I REALLY respect this- for one who doesn't speak English, the music might make it enough to SEEM "revelatory", but for one who DOES, you get a nagging feeling about it, and then after you discover that it's a BIG GIANT JOKE parodying themselves, their audience, "serious" music in general, and the stupid "sheep" that just go around believing everything (i.e. the general public), it IS a revelation. Just like it seems it is.
    Oh, and by the way, only a few bands with big giant epics really "got it". For example, ELP ("Tarkus", no matter how moving it is, is STILL a giant joke), Genesis ("Supper's Ready"- go listen to "Willow Farm" again), and Jethro Tull ("Thick as a Brick" for real. Still not sure about "A Passion Play", though) all "got it". However, bands like Yes (deadly serious and puffed up, but GOOD, and my favorite band ever) and, I think, King Crimson ("Lizard" wasn't a joke...was it?) did NOT "get it". See if this doesn’t completely turn your opinions of music in general on their heads.