Remembering Blind Willie McTell
Bob Dylan may have frequently sung “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” but McTell himself was relatively unknown during his recording career. It wasn’t until after his death that Blind Willie became something of a Blues superstar, Michael Gray says in his biography of McTell, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell.
Willie McTell lived the last few days of his life in Milledgeville at the notorious Central State Hospital. Family members had taken him there in August 1959 because he had suffered a series of strokes, and his physical and emotional health had declined significantly after the death of his common law wife, Helen Edwards. One week later, the family members received word from Central State that Willie had died of a hemorrhagic stroke.
Blind Willie was named Willie Samuel McTear, or McTier, when he was born just outside of Thomson, Georgia in a community called Happy Valley. Not much is known about the details of his early life; even the year of his birth is inconsistent – His grave marker at Jones Grove Baptist Church cemetery in Happy Valley says he was born May 5, 1901 (the current grave marker is not the original one); Georgia Encyclopedia has the year of his birth as 1898, Gray’s biography lists it as 1905, and researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc claimed it was 1903 based on McTell’s entry in the 1910 census.
What is undisputed, though, is McTell’s musical talent and influence on other musicians. He learned at a young age to read and write music in Braille “Although blind, Willie developed a lifelong independence based on his acute sense of hearing, remarkable memory, and versatile musical genius,” reveals the Historical Marker in downtown Thomson that commemorates McTell.
On the Last Session recording, Willie says he lived in Thomson “until I was about nine years old and my mama moved down to (Statesboro) Bulloch County. I stayed there until I ran away. When I ran away, I went everywhere, everywhere I could go without any money. I followed shows all around until I began to get grown.” (He performed in traveling medicine shows.)
After his mother’s death, Willie studied at the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon, then later moved to Atlanta where he became popular around the city performing at house parties and on the streets for tips. Gray says McTell was “inclined by personality and quick-wittedness to live his life adroitly and with optimism.” Atlanta was where Blind Willie’s adeptness and fluidity on the 12-string guitar shone above the other blues artists.
Guitarist and music educator Stefan Grossman explains Blind Willie’s techniques on the PBS Documentary by David Fulmer about McTell’s life, Georgia Blues: Blind Willie McTell. Grossman says McTell alternated playing a heavier backbeat bass string while strumming, “very rag-timey, a very unique sound. He played a rag-timey Piedmont style of blues. And he wrote his own music, which was unusual for blues musicians back then who mostly sang their lyrics to dance hall music.”
Blind Willie seemed to be more of a “ramblin’ man” than Hank Williams. In addition to the streets and alleys of Atlanta, he traveled all across Georgia, down to Florida and as far north as New York, entertaining audiences wherever he could find them – taverns, roadhouses, train stations and such.
By 1927, Blind Willie had caught the attention of record companies; and, like other musicians of that era, he recorded with different labels under various nicknames to avoid being bound by contracts. Under the pseudonyms “Blind Willie McTell,” “Blind Sammie,” “Georgia Bill,” “Hot Shot Willie,” “Pig & Whistle Red,” “Barrelhouse Sammy,” and many others, McTell recorded for RCA Victor, Columbia, Bluebird, Atlantic, and other labels. He recorded songs from 1927 to 1935, including after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, earning decent sales but charting no big hits.
In 1933, Willie married Kate Williams, who worked as a nurse at an Atlanta hospital. Together, Willie and Kate started a bootlegging venture; Willie sang and Kate sold the brew. On Fulmer’s documentary, Kate’s younger brother talks about living with them for a year and describes Willie’s proficiency at taking care of himself even though he was blind.
A few years later, the couple moved to Chicago. Once-popular music styles began changing after the Great Depression and World Wars, and blues lyrics included more urban themes and soloists were joined by other musicians, forming ensembles. Blind Willie’s music career began waning in the 1940s, as did his marriage to Kate. When she moved to New York City, Willie found solace in Helen, with whom he lived until her death.
As his fame faded and health declined, Willie found himself singing for his supper in the parking lot of an Atlanta music club. In the summer of 1956, a record store owner named Ed Rhodes heard him and convinced Willie to play another recording session. McTell agreed, but on one condition – that the music wouldn’t be released while he was still alive. “Because if I got any money from it, I’d just drink myself to death,” he told Rhodes. McTell died August 19, 1959.
In 1961, Ed Rhodes and Samuel Charters released the 1956 recording that Blind Willie requested be held until after his death -- Blind Willie McTell: Last Sessions.
The genre of blues music seemed to enjoy a revival in the 1960s, and appreciation for Blind Willie McTell’s music surged. Taj Mahal and the Allman Brothers Band recorded McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” and Bob Dylan revived McTell’s “Broke Down Engine.” In 1983, Dylan also wrote a song called “Blind Willie McTell.”
Blind Willie’s spirit continues to thrive today. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990 in Macon. And in Atlanta, there’s a Blues Club named after him, Blind Willie’s, on North Highland Avenue, which features blues music from around the country. In Statesboro, there’s a one-mile trail named after him that connects downtown to the Georgia Southern University campus.
But the place to learn the most about Blind Willie is in the town of his birth and burial -- Thomson, Georgia. There, fans can visit his gravesite and the Historical Marker, and can take selfies with the “12 String Art” – guitars that are seven feet tall, painted into works of art by artists and displayed around downtown Thomson. One of the guitars was painted by an Eatonton native, J.J. Hicks Purvis, and another one by Steve Penley. A new mural on Journal Street features McTell, and visitors can watch the PBS documentary at the McDuffie Museum.
And last but certainly not least, each year Thomson hosts the Blind Willie Music Festival to honor McTell’s legacy and keep the music playing. This year’s festival is September 25th and will feature performances by North Mississippi Allstars, Son Volt, Joachim Cooder, Blair Crimmins and the Hookers, and Todd Albright, who plays the 12-string just like the festival’s namesake.
The festival and concerts are held outdoors in an open field with plenty of room for comfortable social distancing. Learn more at blindwillie.com or call 706-597-1000.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
This article, written by Lynn Hobbs, was published in the July-August 2021 issue of Lakelife magazine. Photos contributed by the Activities Council of Thomson.