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Monday, July 2, 2012

Blind Willie McTell: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 2 (1931-1933)


1) Rough Alley Blues; 2) Experience Blues; 3) Painful Blues; 4) Low Rider's Blues; 5) Georgia Rag; 6) Low Down Blues; 7) Rollin' Mama Blues; 8) Lonesome Day Blues; 9) Mama, Let Me Scoop For You; 10) Searching The Desert For The Blues; 11) Warm It Up To Me; 12) It's Your Time To Worry; 13) It's A Good Little Thing; 14) You Was Born To Die; 15) Lord Have Mercy If You Please; 16) Don't You See How This World Made A Change; 17) Savan­nah Mama; 18) Broke Down Engine; 19) Broke Down Engine No. 2; 20) My Baby's Gone; 21) Love-Makin' Mama; 22) Death Room Blues; 23) Death Cell Blues; 24) Lord, Send Me An Angel.

The second volume here is every bit as good as the first; together they form the main bulk of Wil­lie's legacy, and it would all be going down from there. Still from 1931, here comes ʽGeorgia Ragʼ, a rewritten take on what used to be ʽWabash Ragʼ in the hands of Blind Blake — now it is faster, fussier, and Willie's trembling tenor gives it an extra whiff of tenseness, even madness, that makes his performance less formulaic and more personal; an interesting feeling, that, consi­dering that the song is essentially just another harmless dance tune.

Both on this session and on the ones that are dated to 1933, McTell is regularly accompanied by female singers — Mary Willis, Ruth Day, or his own wife, Kate Williams (also known as «Ruby Glaze», unless that was really a different gal, which is still a matter of debate). The result is a batch of appropriately salacious slow-tempo blues (ʽRollin' Mama Bluesʼ, etc.) on which the pair exchanges politically incorrect double entendres; elsewhere, the lady singer just supplies occasio­nal one-liners as sarcastic «counterpoints» to McTell's lyrical outpouring (ʽSearching The Desert For The Bluesʼ) or sings backup on ragtime choruses (ʽWarm It Up To Meʼ). If there is any gene­ral effect from this, it is only a gradual dissipation of McTell's «loner» image — this way, he co­mes across as a cheery guy who likes himself some female company. For comparison, somebody like Blind Lemon Jefferson comes across as a morose guy who only sings about getting himself some female company... but is a bit too scary to ever get any. (Which wasn't true in real life, of course, but we are talking about artistic personae here, not about real people of flesh and blood).

Other points of note involve two sides of blues-gospel material recorded in tandem with Curley Weaver (ʽLord Have Mercyʼ, in particular, has some nice, stinging slide guitar); ʽSavannah Ma­maʼ, arguably featuring Willie's best slide licks on record — that honey-smooth intro, in particu­lar, has entered the repertoire of just about every active slide player on the blues-rock scene; and two more takes on the never-out-of-fashion ʽBroke Down Engineʼ (at least the recording quality has somewhat improved).

But the most famous piece is probably ʽDeath Cell Bluesʼ — for easily understandable social rea­sons. The funny thing is, Blind Willie radiated so much optimism at his peak that even this bleak tale of an innocent fella hanging around death row conveys no feeling of panic, depression, or de­spair. Then again, that might just be the point — where else do you have that one perfect spot to stay cool, calm, and collected other than in your little death cell? A double-sided record with ʽBroke Down Engineʼ on Side A and ʽDeath Cell Bluesʼ on Side B could aspire to the status of «the most depressed pre-war single, bar none», but Willie wouldn't have it.

If there is depression, it is hidden so deep that you'll have to wait for Your Official Guide To The Blues to reassure you that Blind Willie McTell does personify the social troubles and personal humiliation of the Little (Black) Man. It's simply that it is hard for us to discern without the help of the Official Guide. But with or without external aid, Vol. 2 is a thumbs up — a pleasant, up­beat, merry little collection that implies sadness rather than conveys it, a clever artistic trick that many a present day indie kid could seriously benefit from.


  1. It gets amazing how often you manage to seduce me to try stuff, GS. This time it's Georgia Rag. I don't notice any madness, but there is something else. Blind Willie McTell introduces an esthetic value (or wasn't he the first?) that would be the main attraction of Deep Purple 40 years later: play your music faster than strictly necessary, while still sounding relaxed plus accelerate your play during the song. I think that very exciting.
    He does the same with Death Cell Blues, which starts out slow and ends mid-tempo. In the few final notes he slows down again. Classy.
    I don't think it likely R.Blackmore knew his music, though you never know.

  2. Hey, that lady on "Rough Alley Blues" sings "I take you to my room and lay you 'cross my big brass bed". I never figured _that_ to be another of Bob's obscure borrowings.