Blind Willie McTell

by Patrick Conner, UNC Asheville Student

 


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Full name: William Samuel McTell 

Other names: Blind Willie, Barrelhouse Sammy, Blind Doogie, Blind Sammy (Sammie), Georgia Bill, Red Hot Willie Glaze, Hot Shot Willie, Pig 'n' Whistle Red, Red Hot Willie

Born: May 5, 1901, Thomson, GA
Died: August 19, 1959, Milledgeville, GA

Instrument: 12-string guitar (and vocals); also 6-string guitar, accordion, harmonica, kazoo, and violin

Biographical Sketch

Blind Willie was one of the best known and influential people of the Piedmont blues players. Living a life of only 58 years, he was able to accomplish much in his life. He was born in Thomson, GA on May 5th 1901. Born almost totally blind -- only being able to perceive light in one eye -- he ended up losing his sight completely in late childhood. McTell attended many different schools for the blind in several states including Georgia, New York, and Michigan. It is believed that his original name was actually McTier or McTear, and was inadvertently changed to McTell by a teacher at a school for the blind who misunderstood Willie’s southern accent. 

Blind Willie was born into a family rich with musicians. Both of his parents played the guitar, as well as his uncle. He was also related to Georgia Tom Dorsey, later know as the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey. Willie started his musical trek by first learning to play both the harmonica and the accordion, not picking up the six-string guitar until a little later. 

Once Blind Willie began to record, he almost exclusively played with a twelve string, rarely picking up his six to lay down a track. McTell was able to develop a very unique style that enabled him to sound like he was playing more then one guitar at any given moment, hence his desire to play with the twelve string as opposed to the six-string. 

Blind Willie McTell only married once. He was married to Ruthy Kate Williams, and later did several recording sessions with her going under the name of Ruby Glaze. Blind Willie performed and recorded under many names, some of which were Blind Sammie, Hot Shot Willie, and Georgia Bill. Georgia Bill was the name he went under while recording backup for Ruth Mary Willis. Blind Willie recorded his last session in 1956 for a small local record shop after many days of a young many trying very hard to get Willie to come and record. The following year he gave up the blues for good to preach. His wife later said that it was almost as if he knew his time was coming. He died on August 19th, 1959, in Milledgeville, GA. Blind Willie McTell survives through his recordings, most of which are available on compact disc. Besides his unique guitar style, he also had a clear and unconventional vocal style, which fit his style perfectly.

Books

Barlow, William. Looking Up At Down. Temple University Press, 1989.

Bastin, Bruce. Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition of the Southeast. University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Bastin, Bruce. "Truckin' My Blues Away: East Coast Piedmont Styles." Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.

Charters, Samuel Barclay. The Country Blues. Da Capo Press, 1975.

Charters, Samuel Barclay. Sweet as the Showers of Rain. Oak Publications, 1977. Contained in the reprint The Blues Makers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991.

Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues. Hyperion, 1995.

Gart, Galen. First Pressings Vol. 1 (1948-1950). Big Nickel, 1989.

Guralnick, Peter. The Listener's Guide To The Blues. Facts on File, 1982.

Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1979.

Herzhaft, Gerard. Encyclopedia of the Blues. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.

Oliver, Paul, ed. The Blackwell Guide To Blues Records. Blackwell Reference, 1989.

Oliver, Paul. The Story of the Blues. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1969.

Springer, Robert, and Andre J.M. Prevos. Authentic Blues: Its History and Its Themes. Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.

Articles

Basiuk, Bo. "The Music of Blind Willie McTell." Blues Magazine [Canada] 4 (April 1978): 33–48.

Evans, David. "Kate McTell." Blues Unlimited 125 (July/August 1977): 8–16; 127 (November/December 1977): 20–22.

Lowry, Pete. "Some Cole Rainy Day, Part 1: Blind Willie McTell." Blues Unlimited 89 (February/March 1972): 11–12.

"McTell & Weaver: Post War Years." Pickin’ the Blues [Scotland] 10 (December 1982): 11-13.

Taft, Michael. "Willie McTell’s Rules of Rhyme: A Brief Excursion into Blues Phonetics." Southern Folklore Quarterly 42 (1978): 53–71. 

Key Recordings on CD

Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1927-1931) Document

Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (1931-1933) Document

Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 3 (1933-1935) Document

The Definitive Blind Willie McTell. Columbia/Legacy 475701.

Pig 'n' Whistle Red. Biograph 30171

Web Sites

The Blind Willie Music Festival Home Page. Accessed 11 Dec. 2003. <http://www.blindwillie.com>

Blues Lyrics Online. Accessed 11 Dec. 2003.
<http://www.geocities.com/bourbonstreet/delta/2541>

A Comprehensive List of Most Blues Sites. Accessed 11 Dec. 2003. <http://www.netunes.com/blues-sites.htm>

BluesNet. Accessed 11 Dec. 2003. <http://bluesnet.hub.org>



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Last updated 18 December 2003.