STORY OF THE SONG #8: ‘BLIND WILLIE MCTELL’
“Seen the arrow on the doorpost / Saying, this land is condemned / All the way from New Orleans / To Jerusalem / I travelled through East Texas / Where many martyrs fell / And I know no one can sing the blues / Like Blind Willie McTell…”
Something happened when Chrissie Hynde heard Bob Dylan’s 2020 number one record ‘Murder Most Foul’. “Listening to that song completely changed everything for me,” Hynde told Rolling Stone. “I was lifted out of this morose mood that I’d been in, so I called James (Walbourne, Pretenders guitarist) and said, ‘let’s do some Dylan covers’ and that’s what started this whole thing.” That phone call led to the Black Deer-bound Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Famer recording and releasing ‘Standing In The Doorway – Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan’ and this stunning piano, guitar and mandolin-led version of Dylan’s mythic ‘Blind Willie McTell’…
VAN GOUGH OF COUNTRY BLUES
To understand the song, you sometimes have to understand the singer. But, in this case, it helps to understand the story of the singer who the singer is singing about in the song. ‘Blind’ Willie McTell was the “the Van Gough of country blues”, according to Dylan, and the Georgia bluesman is certainly thought of as one of the finest twelve string ragtime fingerstyle acoustic guitarists of the first half of the last century. But, apart from being a big fan, it remains a mystery as to why Dylan chose to use McTell’s name as the pay off to one of his best-written songs. It’s a song that very nearly never saw the light of day, however. Written in 1982, but unreleased until 1991 and not played live until 1997, ‘Blind Willie McTell’ became the holy grail for Dylan fans and bootleggers everywhere. The rub? The song actually lived up to its legendary reputation when it was finally released at the start of the nineties.
GREATEST LIVING SONGWRITER
The first released version features Dylan on piano and Dire Straits man Mark Knopfler on guitar. Knopfler, who produced Dylan’s 193 album ‘Infidels’, could never understand why the songwriter had left the song on the cutting room floor and he wasn’t alone. It’s been suggested that Dylan thought the recording wasn’t up to scratch, or maybe it was even a touch out of tune, but such perfectionist details have never mattered to the craft of America’s greatest living songwriter. Perhaps the truth is more prosaic, maybe Bob wanted a band version to rock on? When ‘Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16’ appeared in 2021, a collection of unreleased recordings from Dylan’s 1980-1985 period, it contained a groove of a take with Jamaican rhythm section Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar on bass and drums.
Even though it’s clear Dylan recorded the song more than once in the eighties, it wasn’t until 1997 that he played the powerful lament live in concert. As seasoned Bobcats will know, he never plays a tune the same way twice and so it’s been with ‘Blind Willie McTell’. There have been acoustic meanders, full band work-outs, intimate piano and harmonica takes and festival rockers. But none more perfect than this jump-jive blues from a 2012 Hollywood Palladium tribute to acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese. What is Americana? Check this out…
DID YOU KNOW?
The lyrics to ‘Blind Willie McTell’ tell a potted history of the troubled past of the southern states of North America. An abstract patchwork of symbolic vignettes, Dylan’s prose is both poem and ballad with hints of the blues that have gone before. The verse that begins “see them big plantations burning, hear the cracking of the whips, smell that sweet magnolia blooming, see the ghosts of slavery ships” almost paraphrases Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ from 1939 (“the scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh”) and it’s no accident. Dylan has long been preoccupied with inequality in the United States and the distance between the American dream and its reality. That’s the hill he stands tall upon in ‘Blind Willie McTell’.
Read Story of the Song #7: ‘Angel Of Montgomery’ here.