Blues singer and Guitarist
Visual impairment : Blind from birth
Willie Samuel McTell was probably born in 1898 (although May 5, 1901 has also been given as his year of birth) south of Thomson , Georgia , about thirty miles west of the city of Augusta.
His father, Ed McTear took to drink and gamble, and his marriage to Willie's mother broke up soon after the child was born. Willie and his mother moved a few miles south to Stapleton a town that was enjoying some prosperity at the time due to a boom in the lumber and turpentine industries. Although his father remained irresponsible and his mother had to struggle to make ends meet, Willie had many aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides of his family who helped to take care of him. Most of these relatives led stable and economically comfortable lives. Settled in towns and cities along a route stretching from Statesboro to Augusta to Atlanta , they provided a secure network of support and help for Willie when he began his musical travels. This network was supplemented by many friends as well as some prominent white patrons who took an interest in the talented Willie.
Willie learned the guitar from his mother during his early teens. Through his teenage years and early twenties he played in various touring carnivals and shows, including the John Roberts Plantation Show. During this time he also attended various schools for the blind in New York and Georgia where he learned to read Braille. Willie became an accomplished musical theorist, able to both read and write music in Braille, through an encouraging family and strong faith.
Despite lifelong blindness Willie knew his way around several major cities, including New York City 's subway system, and could distinguish between different denominations of bank notes.
McTell began his recording career in 1927 for Victor Records of Atlanta, following a spell as an itinerant musician. In the years before World War II, he recorded prodigiously, for a wide variety of labels under an equal variety of names, but his style was singular – a form of country blues, bridging the gap between the raw blues of the Mississippi Delta and the more refined East Coast sound.
For an artist who was so widely known, who had fourteen recording sessions over a thirty-year period and who was interviewed three times during his lifetime, surprisingly few facts were known about his life until recently. This is partly due to the fact that few people knew him by the name of Willie McTell. Family members spell his surname McTier of McTear. McTell was probably based on a misunderstanding of his pronunciation at one of the blind schools that he attended. He himself often recorded under various nicknames, such as Blind Willie, Georgia Bill, Hot Shot Willie, Blind Sammie, Barrel House Sammy (from his middle name Samuel) and Pig 'n' Whistle Red (from the name of the drive-in barbecue restaurant where he entertained customers for tips). His best known nickname was Doog or Doogie, though he never used it on his recordings. He was apparently such a familiar musical fixture in many places that people seldom felt the need to know his full name. Whenever he showed up, people either remembered him from a previous encounter or were instantly attracted to him, he entertained them and they came across with a tip.
Willie McTell is one of the very greatest of the pre-World War II solo country blues artists. His singing is charged with extraordinary sensitivity and displays a variety of moods ranging from deep pathos to broad humour. McTell doesn't convey a sense of overwhelming power by shouting or singing from deep down in the chest, yet the listener senses a great self-confidence in his voice. There is no mumbling or mush-mouthed delivery, no sense of shyness or repression in his singing.
The most unique aspect of McTell's style was his approach to rhythm with its abrupt surges of power and tempo. His work as a solo performer is largely designed for listening and does not seem to be particularly oriented toward dancers. McTell instead seems to be doing his own private dance, a style pre-eminent in the state of Georgia and one that is often done solo and without musical accompaniment, the feet of the dancer tapping out the rhythms on a floor in quick bursts of energy.
McTell's music is characterized by his clear voice and twelve-string finger picking technique. His crisp, clean guitar lines intertwine with and underline his lyrics. Through his wide repertoire McTell was able to cater to his audience, being adept at playing blues, ragtime, gospel, pop, and country material.
Every one of his 78 singles is a rare collector's item today. While accomplished and appreciated in his day, Blind Willie was never truly successful by today's standards. His real claim to success has been realized in his gift to future generations. In his lifetime, overcoming physical and social adversity was part of the program. Why he never had a hit record is a mystery, as his work is of consistently high quality and virtually all of it is in print today.
While few of his recordings ever earned mainstream popularity, his influence on the modern music and art scene is widely known. His songs (Statesboro Blues, Broke Down Engine Blues, etc...) have been recorded by famous artists such as the Allman Brothers, Taj Mahal and others. In 1981, Bob Dylan used the folk melody of the 'St. James Infirmary Blues' to write a tribute song for McTell.
Ironically, despite a prolific career of recording under a variety of aliases for any recording scout in town, Blind Willie McTell had to be persuaded to record his last session. After Ed Rhodes, an Atlanta record store owner, played a Leadbelly record for a foreign student, the student returned and informed him that a man down the street was singing in a style similar to Leadbelly's. The singer was Blind Willie McTell, playing for tips behind the Blue Lantern Club. Rhodes, who owned some recording equipment, approached McTell about recording a session. At first, Willie refused, but dropped by Mr. Rhodes's store occasionally over the next few weeks. McTell finally relented, and provided Mr. Rhodes with a reprise of material he'd performed over his lifetime, interspersed with anecdotes about his life and music. The tapes were kept in his store's attic unreleased for a few years. One day while cleaning the attic, well after he had sold his recording equipment, all the tapes Mr. Rhodes made were lying in a trash can. There was only one salvageable tape, which was later released as the Blind Willie McTell's Last Session album on Prestige/Bluesville Records.
Blind Willie McTell married Ruth Kate Williams in 1934. Willie traveled constantly, while Kate stayed home pursuing a career as an army nurse. In a 1977 interview, Kate McTell recalled Willie's response when she asked why he traveled so frequently, "He said 'Baby, I was born a rambler. I'm gonna ramble until I die, but I'm preparing you to live after I'm gone'. He sure did. I retired with thirty-two years of nurse training at Fort Gordon ."
Around 1957, according to Kate McTell's 1977 interview, Blind Willie McTell quit singing the blues and became a preacher, singing only spirituals, "He knew he was getting on in age. He said he felt like he was coming to the end of his journey, he was coming back to God". Willie McTell died of a cerebral hemhorrage on August 19, 1959 at the Milledgeville State Hospital in Georgia . Like many classic blues singers, little was known about Blind Willie McTell's life, until blues enthusiast David Evans tracked down Willie's wife, Kate, for a three-part interview published by Blues Unlimited magazine in 1977. This has ensured that details about McTell and many of the musicians he'd known are available for future generations.