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Willie McTell

Genre is the kind of second-hand tourist guide that gets you excited about a place, then gets you completely lost once you're there.

I remember Peter Guralnick saying somewhere that when he first started researching the blues he liked Willie McTell a lot, but then sort of didn't, he wasn't sure why.... And John Lomax seems to've been put off by McTell's bend-with-the-wind facility and refusal to complain about oppression, like he was some kind Sammy Davis Jr. or something....

Trouble is, as fans get to know a genre, they start to think of their generalizations as rules instead of descriptions and start to think of the genre itself as some sort of honor that has to be won, instead of what it is. After all, they worked hard to learn those generalizations, and the least the artists can do is follow suit. This gets specially nasty with genres like blues, folk, and hip-hop, where built-in assumptions about race and class invite the question of "authenticity" in to murder one's nearest and dearest.

  Willie McTell

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Willie McTell  
And Willie McTell wasn't exactly "authentically" a blues musician. It's true he's marketed as blues: there's no other way for an African-American guitarist-singer from Depression-era Atlanta to be marketed. And he recorded a fair number of songs with "Blues" in the title: record companies pushed them at the time. But how many other musicians in the blues bins could've recorded under the pseudonym "Hillbilly Willie" or would've pulled "Wabash Cannonball" from a drunken memory rummage?

McTell played blues songs not because they were blues but because they were popular, and he handled them superbly not because he was a blues musician but because he was a pop musician. In fact, when I first heard him twenty-some years ago, his eclecticism and detached engagement reminded me more of the Kinks than of any of the bit of blues I knew.

Now I can place him more accurately in the songster tradition, and more specifically among an assortment of drawling, danceable, dry-eyed tragicomedians that include Robert Wilkins and Blind Blake: simultaneously down-home and show-biz slick, languid and virtuosic, aiming above all for an appearance of natural aristocratic ease. (Peaks of energetic enthusiasm are typically expressed by McTell with a laconic "That made me sweat.") When need arises, I usually group them under the (admittedly unsatisfactory) umbrella term jug band, although determined taxonomists vivisect their seamless sound into more established categories like "folk," "blues," "ragtime," "vaudeville," "gospel," "hillbilly," or "hokum."

But McTell remains unique, with a uniqueness that tends to be overlooked because it can't be successfully mimicked or explicitly credited. McTell wasn't a composer of songs but of line readings; a master of nuanced affect, he's as phrase-intent as Webern. I've heard maybe a dozen versions of "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," but no others flaunt hooks to match McTell's shifting vocal delivery and breaking-glass-organ "mess-arounds" (probably played on the headstock of his 12-string guitar); his demand for that "gal over there with that rrrred frrock on" exults in its peculiar lasciviousness as much as Ian Hunter's demand for "you there! with the glasses!" The structure is a given; the joy is in the details.

McTell himself said of his most strikingly original composition, "Dying Crapshooter's Blues" (1.9MB MP3): "I had to steal music from every which way you could get it to get it to fit." Although the criminal's mock testament has a history ranging from Villon to "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary," McTell's three years of tinkering resulted in a structure part recitation, part theater -- a three-act pop opera complete with opening fanfare.

In it, he achieves a kind of fantastic naturalism: the reporter enchanted by the sordidness of his own fantasy, breaking in with interjections to remind us of the frame story, smoothly shifting back into the observer's world during what's chanted as one long limber line, the front-rhyme of "North" and "no" sealing the transition watertight:

Twenty-nine women outta North Atlanta no little Jesse didn't pass out so swell....
with military honors And then the deadpan summary of Jesse's farewell:
His head was aching, heart was thumping,
Little Jesse went down bouncing and jumping.
Folks, don't be standing around old Jesse crying:
He wants everybody to do the Charleston whilst he dies.
One foot up and a toenail dragging,
Throw my friend Jesse in the hoodoo wagon.
Moving to full-throated song again for the "moral" and the "memorial":
Come here mama with that can of booze.
Dyin' crapshooter's blues, I mean
The dyin' crapshooter's blues.
It's not rural music, and it's not nightclub music; not exactly earthbound, but nothing close to ethereal. McTell is the ideal musician for the dreamy grimy rubbery urbanity of archy & mehitabel, for E. C. Segar's Thimble Theater (or for the early Fleischers' Popeye -- they never found a scorer as perfect as Cab Calloway was for Betty Boop), for the silent comedies of miracle-working white-faced saints with dirt-blackened hands....


Jesse Anderson kindly writes:

Just a little note about the 'breaking glass organ' in Pinetop's Boogie Woogie - I'm pretty sure that this was McTell hitting the strings below the bridge rather than above the nut. It'd be hard to get that much volume out of the strings at the headstock. This is an uncommon sound because it can't be reproduced in pin-bridged guitars - that is, guitars whose string ends go into holes in the guitar top just behind the saddle. But McTell's 12 strings we often more 'trapeze' style bridges - as you can see in the 2nd and 3rd pictures on your page, the string ends are passed through bracket connected to the bottom of the guitar, and there is a short section of string between this bracket and the saddle that could produce these high tones.

. . .

There is, I think, a critical term which can cover McTell's character-driven vocals, his interest in performance rather than songwriting, his playfulness and close observation, even his eclecticism, and it isn't "blues," but "negative capability."

What goes on to distinguish McTell from Keats's idealized poet (if not from Keats himself) is the intelligence he brings to the job, an intelligence he's unwilling to sacrifice to sentimentality or method acting. How to marry the empathic and analytic impulses, fleshly weakness and rational judgment? In a dance rhythm, of course, but how else?

How else but with our old acquaintance irony? And McTell's is a particularly supple and slippery irony, clinging to bring out the subtleties of each gesture. It leaves him lightfooted and assured, free to underplay or overplay as seems appropriate, less chameleon than cosmopolitan: a human of many parts.

w Helen Edwards  
Given that, it's interesting to hear McTell try to negotiate the territory of sacred music, which would seem to require at least a pretense of sincerity. Though a few of his religious numbers drown in lugubriosity, he's successful with "Motherless Children" (never the most theocentric of songs) and with the restrained mournful reasonableness of "(Might as Well Live a Christian) You Got To Die"; in both, he frequently hands off responsibility for "lead vocals" to his slide guitar, as if fearing a slip in tone.

But -- on sacred ground or not -- sardonic observation is allowed to run riot in "God Don't Like It," whose monstrous church lady bad-mouths each tippling member of the congregation and clergy while her quailed minion McTell peeps assent beneath her glare.

Returning from sheep to goats, comic distance also softens the sting of "Southern Can." An ancestor to the mellow thuggery of G-funk, its celebration of woman-beating is burlesqued by its own hyperbole and reduced to near whimsy -- like the little sword-swinging man in the Thurber cartoon -- by McTell's vocals, which are held to a light drawl even when he claims "I'm screaming." What's being observed here, with amused-but-absorbed detachment, isn't violence but the threatener of violence.

The best example of McTell's dry-eyed empathy and focus on the telling detail may be "Little Delia" (2MB MP3). It's another ballad with a varied history, but here McTell's adaptation doesn't emphasize the narrative. Instead, he fractures it into a collection of vignettes rippling forwards and backwards from the central drop-in-the-bucket -- a verse is accidently repeated without noticeable damage -- each principal and accessory given a piercing glance and passed by.

He changes the story's protagonists to professional lowlifes -- gamblers, "rounders" -- and then emphasizes their typicality, most insistently in the single-line chorus (that lyric form beloved of Yeats) "She's one more rounder gone." No one is granted dignity -- Delia's parents seem less upset by Delia's death than by her not having the decency to "die at home" -- and Delia herself is utterly disposable, only of interest to a court that, in turn, is only interested in punishing her unrepentant killer. But everyone is granted their given moment of fully-engaged attention, and in her very disposability Delia seems to drag an entire implied world of arbitrary injustice down with her. At her deathbed, as at Jesse's, McTell approaches transcendence through (as Manny Farber wrote of His Girl Friday) a sort of voluptuous cynicism.

Delia, Delia, take no one's advice.
Last word I heard her say was: "Jee-zus Christ!"

. . .

'Eddie McTier's' grave

History doesn't go out of its way to support ease, subtlety, and grace. Elizabethan lyric is discarded for Augustan rhetoric; Gene Kelly is preferred to Fred Astaire, Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jet Li, Seka to Georgina Spelvin....

Maybe it just has to do with what reproduces easiest -- what's easiest to follow in a coarse copy -- and that's why Jim Davis outsells George Herriman and why Bob Dylan's elder-statesman cover of "Little Delia," which moves like he's jammed his boot in the slop bucket, has gotten more college airplay than McTell's recording ever will.

Maybe it's as commercially inevitable as Buster Keaton getting paired with Jimmy Durante, but that don't mean I gotta like it.

Guralnick grew up to prefer the "hardcore" sounds of Skip James and Howlin Wolf. It's true, McTell isn't hardcore; his irony is so supple as to be almost boneless.

But why always go for the crunchy center? Humanity is surface and depth at least as much as it's a hard core.

There's what's easy to reproduce and what forces one's attention. Then again there's what's caught by the reproduction and what rewards one's attention. "The distinguished thing."

Willie McTell never had a hit; his work was neither an easy sell nor a quick study. But he kept being recorded; he made something that people wanted to capture -- and they succeeded, occasionally anyway, to the profit of their immortal souls if not of their record companies: the communicable pleasure of the attentive listener.

Consumer Guide

Blind Willie McTell's recordings were made over three decades, and each block has its champions. My conception of McTell as pop-musician rests on the mid-career commercial sessions of 1949, the mid-1930s, and 1950.

Many guitar scholars prefer his earlier recordings, though I find most of them a bit rushed and uncomfortable.

Sociological types might be most taken by the noncommercial documentations of 1940 and 1956, whose talks interest me more than their music.

The "Definitive" in The Definitive Blind Willie McTell refers to the biographical booklet rather than to the CD itself.

Update: Some years later, Joseph Duemer responded.

And some years later still, Patrick Costello.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.