Retracing Blind Willie's blues 

The Atlanta blues legend, and a bygone era, come alive in Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes

“I want eight crapshooters for my pallbearers, let ‘em all be dressed down in black.
I want nine men going to the graveyard, but only eight mens coming back.
I want a gang of gamblers gathered around my coffin side, with a crooked card printed on my hearse.
Don’t say that crapshooters will never grieve over me, my life’s been a doggone curse.”

— Blind Willie McTell, "Dying Crapshooter’s Blues"

Take a walk over to the corner of Luckie and Cone streets in downtown Atlanta and you won’t find much today, just a parking lot, a parking garage and a convenience store. Back in 1940, when the Tabernacle down on Luckie Street was still the Third Baptist Church, John and Ruby Lomax were staying at the Robert Fulton Hotel, a hulking mass of red brick that towered over that street corner.

Late one afternoon during their stay, Ruby noticed a blind black man playing a 12-string for change in front of a Pig’n Whistle barbecue stand on Ponce de Leon Avenue. He accepted their invitation to record a few songs for the Library of Congress archive, on the condition that he was paid a dollar plus cab fare. In his notes about the day, Lomax would write, “He sang some interesting blues. His guitar picking was excellent. ... He shuffled away from me across a busy street in the downtown district. I watched him until he was out of sight.”

The blind man drank a lot of corn whiskey over the next couple of decades, playing songs for change at barbecue joints and in alleyways. He recorded a few more times but never made any money from it. Sitting beside a tree in Milledgeville while eating barbecue, he suffered a fatal stroke. On a Sunday morning in August 1959, he was buried under a gravestone with the wrong name not far from where he was born in Thompson, Ga. None of his recordings were in print. Nobody really noticed.

About a decade later in 1971, the same year the Robert Fulton Hotel was leveled to the ground, the Allman Brothers opened a sold-out concert at the Fillmore East with a song called “Statesboro Blues,” written by a blind black man from Georgia that nobody knew much about. His name was Blind Willie McTell.

Ten years before Blind Willie died, Michael Gray was born across the ocean in the small town of Bromborough, England. He’s made his living writing about music, most notably the massive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia and Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan. In 1998, Gray first traveled from his home in France to Thompson, looking for traces of McTell and his family. “He called to me as a beguiling character in a mysterious setting. What little was known about him drew me in to the backwoods of rural Georgia,” he writes in the introduction to Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell. After years of research, bus riding, and door knocking, Gray has written the definitive book on McTell.

Hand Me My Traveling Shoes is nothing if not bewilderingly comprehensive. Gray spends the first 100 pages or so tracking down genealogical details and historical context before even getting around to McTell's birth. Gray documents his “story of getting the story” with an outsider’s eye for details, often in awe of the South as much as he finds himself frustrated with it. The proliferation of fast food along country roads is particularly hard for him. “The very idea of dinner as a real meal, naturally accompanied by glasses of wine — this fundamental pleasure, this daily benefit of civilisation — seems utterly absent from North American consciousness outside of the cities, as if they’ve had a social and culinary lobotomy and haven’t noticed.”

When he isn’t complaining, though, Gray has a knack for drawing history out of the dust. McTell’s genealogy is traced back to Warren County in the 18th century. Working forward from McTell’s white great-grandfather, Kendall McTyeire, Gray weaves a well-spun history of slavery, civil war, reconstruction, and lynching to give a context to the “time and place, the world, into which Willie McTell was born.”

As it turns out, McTell’s life doesn’t reflect the stories often told about blues musicians. “He didn’t lose his sight in a jook-joint brawl, or hopping a freight train. He didn’t escape into music from behind a mule plow in the Delta. He didn’t die violently or young,” Gray writes.

McTell was born blind, possibly because of congenital syphilis contracted from his mother, Minnie. By all accounts, he never let that disability restrict his movement. Lomax writes of their car ride to the Robert Fulton Hotel, "Chatting all the while with me, Blind Willie called every turn, even mentioning the location of the stop lights. He gave the names of buildings as we passed them. Stored in his mind was an accurate, detailed photograph of Atlanta.”

A wealthy Statesboro benefactor paid for him to attend the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon, where he was introduced to a formal music education. Sister Fleet Mae Echols attended the academy at the same time as McTell and says that he was “very smart,” even that “He was a real mathematician. He could do it.”

After his formal schooling, McTell went on to record a wealth of records in the blues heyday, cutting 78s for Decca, Victor and Vocalion, among others. One record, “Statesboro Blues,” was a minor success, selling a little more than 4,000 copies in its time. The Allman Brothers' 1971 live album that opens with “Statesboro Blues,” At Fillmore East, sold more than a million copies in one year.

McTell probably didn’t expect that he would inspire a band of acid-dropping Southern longhairs, or that Bob Dylan would claim his greatness — “No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” — in a song written 30 years after his death. In 1956, Ed Rhodes found him singing pop songs to teenagers out behind the Blue Lantern Club, where the Local bar stands today. Rhodes, who ran a record store on the corner of 13th and Peachtree streets, tried for weeks to convince him to record a few songs at his store. After McTell finally agreed and played a short session for him, he asked to hear the tape. “I don’t want this ever published while I’m alive,” he said, “’cause if I did ever get any money for it, I would just drink myself to death.” It was the last recording Blind Willie McTell would ever cut. Rhodes drove him home to his place underneath the Dixie Dancehall. He never saw Blind Willie McTell again.

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