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Monday, July 9, 2012

Blind Willie McTell: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 3 (1933-1935)


1) B & O Blues, No. 2 (take 1); 2) B & O Blues, No. 2 (take 2); 3) Weary Hearted Blues; 4) Bell Street Lightnin'; 5) Southern Can Mama; 6) Runnin' Me Crazy; 7) East St. Louis Blues; 8) Ain't It Grand To Be A Christian; 9) We Got To Meet Death One Day (take 1); 10) We Got To Meet Death One Day (take 2); 11) Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around; 12) I Got Religion, I'm So Glad; 13) Dying Gambler; 14) God Don't Like It; 15) Bell Street Blues; 16) Let Me Play With Yo' Yo-Yo; 17) Lay Some Flowers On My Grave; 18) Ticket Agent Blues; 19) Cold Winter Day; 20) Your Time To Worry; 21) Cooling Board Blues; 22) Hillbilly Willie's Blues.

Hardly essential, but still somewhat worth the while: there is nothing of importance or specific in­terest that Willie could heap on top of his legacy from late 1933 to 1935 — but he was still versa­tile, young-sounding, and occasionally inspired with his instrument and his pipes. So even if a large chunk of these tunes consists of re-recordings under slightly transfigured titles (ʽSouthern Can Mamaʼ, ʽYour Time To Wor­ryʼ, etc.), they are still modestly amusing if the original versions happen not to be available.

On the other hand, if you do play the earlier ʽSouthern Can Is Mineʼ back-to-back with the new­er ʽSouthern Can Mamaʼ, the difference is striking — the 1935 recording is somewhat slower, a bit lazier, and there are signs of deterioration in Wil­lie's voice: it is obviously lower, the diction is a little slurred, and there is a nasty quiver in there somewhere which, unfortunately, betrays a pre­occupation with the bottle that might have been far stronger than preoccupation with his music. In the light of this suspicion, tunes like ʽBell Street Bluesʼ ("I live down in Bell Street Alley, just as drunk as I can be") take on an autobiographic sheen — not that the whole thing were somewhat unpredictable among pre-war bluesmen (or post-war, for that matter).

Quite a large section here, most of it dating from a single session in 1935, consists of gospel ma­terial, where Willie is joined by his wife Kate — their duet sounding like an intentional imitation of the style developed by Blind Willie Johnson and Willie Harris, but far less successful: neither McTell's guitar runs, even when he switches to slide, nor his whiskey-addled vocals, nor the pha­ryngeal singing style of Kate can stand competition with the veritable master of the genre. For­tunately, none of these Lord-addressed blues sermons would stop Willie from asking his gal to ʽLet Me Play With Yo' Yo-Yoʼ ("I will let you play with mine") in between professing his glad­ness about getting religion and asking us to ʽLay Some Flowers On My Graveʼ. That's what we call a real dedication to the cause.

Possibly out of being desperate for a hit, McTell even turns to country — ʽHillbilly Willie's Bluesʼ not only sounds like something out of Fiddlin' John Carson's repertoire, but Willie even attempts to fake a white Southern accent, maybe relying on the fact that his normal voice always sounded relatively «non-black». It's... an odd oddity, or something, and it may not be coincidental that it was also his last recording to be made in about five years.

In the end, the only «classic» performance on the entire Vol. 3 that deserves to be heard is ʽEast St. Louis Bluesʼ, recorded with Curley Weaver and featuring a particularly sensitive-delicate de­livery — even the lyrics here are quite complex for a generic old blues song: "she tried to make me bleed by the rattlings of her tongue" is one hell of a line, and the whole thing is tender, bitter­sweet and intimate on some hard-to-understand level. Alas, it was recorded in 1933, and exactly one year on from that, Blind Willie McTell was pretty much done as a «force to be reckoned with» — any album that begins with the likes of ʽEast St. Louis Bluesʼ and ends with the likes of ʽHillbilly Willieʼ would suggest that even to a reviewer utterly unfamiliar with the facts.