Saturday, March 24, 2012

Blind Willie McTell - Experience Blues

Blind Willie McTell was born Willie Samuel McTell on May 5, sometime between 1898 and 1903, blind in one eye. He lost the sight in his other eye before he became an adult, To survive he played a six string , but primarily a twelve string guitar, and sang on street corners for change.  He is considered a true blues master.  He began his recording career in 1927 with Victor Records in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Before World War II McTell traveled the country singing, playing and recording under a number of names and for a variety of different labels - Blind Willie McTell (Victor and Decca), Blind Sammie (Columbia), Georgia Bill (Okeh), Hot Shot Willie (Victor), Blind Willie (Vocalion), Red Hot Willie Glaze (Bluebird), Barrelhouse Sammie (Atlantic) and Pig & Whistle Red (Regal). He continued to record in the Atlanta, GA area through the 1940’s but never achieved any substantial commercial success.  By the 1950’s McTell’s health started to deteriorate from diabetes and alcoholism.

Edward Rhodes, an Atlanta record store owner, in 1956 discovered McTell playing the street for quarters and lured him to his store with a bottle of corn liquor.  At the store Rhodes recorded a few final performances on tape.  The tracks were released posthumously on Prestige/Bluesville Records as Blind Willie McTell's Last Session.  McTell died of a stroke in 1959.

McTell is the nexus between early country blues,  the raw Mississippi blues of the first part of the 20th Century, and the jazz-based East Coast Piedmont sound.  If you are a rock or blues enthusiast you have no doubt heard some of his songs.

In 2002 Our World Records released Willie McTell - Experience Blues, a compendium of 16 McTell tunes cleaned up and digitally enhanced.  Many believe other albums of McTell’s work are better than Experience Blues.  In fact, most others choose well known McTell tunes, and there is a full compendium of all of his 149 recordings.  On Experience Blues you won’t find hits.  It doesn’t have such classics as Statesboro Blues or Travelin’ Blues,  However, what it does have is incredible sound - so good it feels like you are sitting in front of Blind Willie and his guests at a small intimate nightclub venue.  No easy task, Some of the original recordings are almost 90 years old.  The release also has a connoisseur's collection of interesting and obscure McTell blues performances.  This is really the abridged edition of the story of McTell’s life told not in his hits but in iconic period pieces.

The last track on the album is Broke Down Engine, a song that summarizes McTell’s life.  Bob Dylan called it “a Blind Willie McTell masterpiece ... it's about Ambiguity, the fortunes of the privileged elite, flood control — watching the red dawn not bothering to dress.(sic)"

Blind Willie McTell is a giant in the history of blues and early rock ‘n roll. How great is he?  We still listen to and speak of his work with reverence 56 years after his last, and 90 years after his first sound recording.

- Old School

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