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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Singing the Blues

Book Review

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Michael Gray’s Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes (Bloomsbury) reports on the life of Blind Willie McTell (1903-1959) and the early years of American blues. It’s also a detailed, atmospheric, cultural rendering of rural Southern life during McTell’s lifetime. The story of the artist and his times are clearly delineated by a brilliant historian and the specifics of a way of life are captured in ways that only a poet knows.


McTell’s earliest recordings were cut in Atlanta, New York City, Chicago and Augusta, Ga., for a number of labels, beginning with Victor, from 1927 to 1936. Next comes a single-day song-and-talk session for the Library of Congress, recorded by John Lomax in 1940. The third period, 1949- 1950, includes sessions for Atlantic and Regal. The last is another one-day session of songs mixed with conversations in Edward Rhodes’ Atlanta record shop in 1956.

When Sam Charters released those final sessions in the fall of 1961 as Blind Willie McTell: Last Session, McTell’s music became part of the canon of the folk-blues revival. In 1965 Taj Mahal recorded McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” Duane Allman heard it and turned it into a guitar fury, playing it regularly at the Fillmore East in March of 1971 with the Allman Brothers. In Allman’s hands, “Statesboro Blues” became a classic.

Later, Bob Dylan released a song called “Blind Willie McTell” with the refrain, “And I know no one can sing the blues/Like Blind Willie McTell.” More recently, the White Stripes’ Jack White performed in the bluesman’s home state and announced to the unwitting audience that he was proud to play McTell’s birthplace. If one listens the right way to the White Stripes, one hears McTell riffs unleashed with an inverted ferocity.

As the book reveals, McTell never saw himself as an innovator. He lived a life that was far from recording studios: He played street corners. He stayed away from the rougher juke joints or played only early shows because he was blind and vulnerable, even though he had a sixth sense about the world around him. For a time he was led around by Blind Lemon Jefferson, another blues master of the era. Maybe it was the blind leading the blind, but Jefferson reported always feeling safe, as though he was with someone who had sight.

The author nails McTell’s importance in his comment on “Statesboro Blues.” “It’s easy to hear…why ‘Statesboro Blues’ became so much loved…when it was issued on vinyl, taken up by the folk revival crowd, and then again another decade on by the Allman Brothers Band: This 1928 recording is so rock ’n’ roll.” We need to pause here before going on with Gray’s comment. Rock ’n’ roll in 1928? Let’s continue. “The lyrics are full of these tricksy, evocative expressions baby-boomers like me recognize from Jerry Lee Lewis records and the like … McTell propels them forward with such fresh exuberance, and in a song that also shivers with pain, so that he’s firing a wide range of feeling very directly at the listener.” Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is a travelogue, biography, cultural doctrine and social and political history. And, significantly, it finally exposes the life of one of America’s greatest oral tradition artists.

The book is ultimately about America, too, as it examines everything from a vision that seeks to perceive how the music that changed the world forever was made against all odds. McTell plays 12-string like a piano gone mad. He sings like a man possessed with vision. He never knew it, but he made recordings that forever altered vernacular music patterns and he did so in an offhand, casual manner, even if there was a microphone shoved at him between street corner gigs.

Gray is as insightful as anyone could possibly be on all fronts, safely leading McTell from gig to gig, titling his book from a line in “Statesboro Blues” that defines McTell’s wandering way of life and composition method.