Blind Willie McTell

Blind Willie McTell
Blind Willie McTell

McTell recording for John Lomax in an Atlanta hotel room, November 1940. Photograph by the archivist's wife, Ruby Lomax.
Background information
Birth name William Samuel McTier
Also known as Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Hot Shot Willie, Blind Willie, Barrelhouse Sammy, Pig & Whistle Red, Blind Doogie, Red Hot Willie Glaze, Red Hot Willie
Born May 5, 1898(1898-05-05)
Thomson, Georgia, U.S.
Origin Statesboro, Georgia, U.S.
Died August 19, 1959(1959-08-19) (aged 61)
Milledgeville, Georgia, U.S.
Genres Country blues, Piedmont blues, ragtime, Delta blues, gospel
Occupations Musician, songwriter, songster, accompanist, preacher
Instruments Vocals, guitar, harmonica, accordian, kazoo, violin
Years active 1927–1956
Labels Victor, Columbia, Okeh, Vocalion, Decca, Atlantic, Regal
Associated acts Curley Weaver, Kate McTell
Notable instruments
Stella Jumbo Twelve-String, Stella Grand Concert Twelve-String, Stella Long Scale Grand Concert Twelve-String, Harmony Twelve-String, Harmony-Stella 922[1]

Blind Willie McTell (born William Samuel McTier, May 5, 1898 – August 19, 1959), was an influential Piedmont and ragtime blues singer and guitarist. He played with a fluid, syncopated fingerstyle guitar technique, common among many exponents of Piedmont blues, although, unlike his contemporaries, he used exclusively a twelve-string guitar. As well as this, McTell was an adept slide guitarist, unusual among many ragtime bluesmen. His vocal style, a smooth and often laid-back tenor, differed greatly from many of the harsher and more expressive voice types employed by Delta bluesmen such as Charlie Patton. McTell embodied a variety of musical styles, including blues, ragtime, religious music, and hokum.

Born blind in the town of Thomson, Georgia, McTell learned how to play the guitar during his teens. He soon became a street performer around several Georgia cities, namely Atlanta; and first recorded in 1927 for Victor Records. Although he never produced a major hit record, McTell's recording career was prolific, recording for different labels under different names all throughout the 1920s and 30s, often with other people. In 1940, he was recorded by John Lomax for the Library of Congress's folk song archive. He would remain active throughout the 1940s and 50s, playing on the streets of Atlanta, often with his longtime partner Curley Weaver. Twice more he recorded professionally. McTell's last recordings originated during an impromptu session recorded by Atlanta record store owner Edward Rhodes in 1956; these were released posthumously. McTell would die three years later after suffering for years from diabetes and alcoholism. Despite his mainly failed releases, McTell was one of the few archaic blues musicians that would live to actively play and record during the 1940s and 50s (although, McTell never lived to be "rediscovered" during the imminent American folk music revival, where many other bluesmen would be rediscovered and given a chance to record).[2]

McTell's influence extended over a wide variety of artists, including The Allman Brothers Band, who famously covered McTell's "Statesboro Blues", and Bob Dylan, who paid tribute to McTell in his 1983 song "Blind Willie McTell". Other artists include Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, The White Stripes, and Chris Smither.



Born William Samuel McTier[3] in Thomson, Georgia, blind in one eye, McTell had lost his remaining vision by late childhood but became an adept reader of Braille. He showed proficiency in music from an early age, first playing harmonica and accordian and turning to the six-string guitar in his early teens.[3][4] Born into a musical family, both of his parents and an uncle played guitar; also, he is related to bluesman and gospel pioneer, Thomas A. Dorsey.[3] His father left the family when McTell was still young, and when his mother died in the 1920s, he left his hometown and became a wandering busker. He began his recording career in 1927 for Victor Records in Atlanta.[5]

In the years before World War II, he traveled and performed widely, recording for a number of labels under many different names, including Blind Willie McTell (Victor and Decca), Blind Sammie (Columbia), Georgia Bill (Okeh), Hot Shot Willie (Victor), Blind Willie (Vocalion and Bluebird), Barrelhouse Sammie (Atlantic), and Pig & Whistle Red (Regal).The "Pig 'n Whistle" appellation was a reference to a chain of Atlanta Bar-B-Que restaurants, one of which was located on the south side of East Ponce de Leon between Boulevard and Moreland Avenue. Blind Willie frequently played for tips in the parking lot of this location, which later became the Krispy Kreme. He was also known to play behind the nearby building that later became Ray Lee's Blue Lantern Lounge. His style was singular: a form of country blues bridging the gap between the raw blues of the early part of the 20th century and the more refined east coast "Piedmont" sound. He took on the less common and more unwieldy 12-string guitar because of its volume. The style is well documented on John Lomax's 1940 recordings of McTell for the Library of Congress. McTell earned $10 from these sessions, the equivalent of $154.56 in 2011.[5]

In 1934, he married Ruthy Kate Williams (now better known as Kate McTell).[6] She accompanied him on stage and on several recordings before becoming a nurse in 1939. Most of their marriage from 1942 until his death was spent apart, with her living in Fort Gordon near Augusta and him working around Atlanta.

Postwar, he recorded for Atlantic Records and Regal Records in 1949, but these recordings met with less commercial success than his previous works. He continued to perform around Atlanta, but his career was cut short by ill health, predominantly diabetes and alcoholism.

In 1956, an Atlanta record store manager, Edward Rhodes, discovered McTell playing in the street for quarters and enticed him with a bottle of corn liquor into his store, where he captured a few final performances on a tape recorder. These were released posthumously on Prestige/Bluesville Records as Last Session.[7]

McTell died in Milledgeville, Georgia, of a stroke in 1959. He was buried at Jones Grove Church, near Thomson, Georgia, his birthplace. A fan paid to have a gravestone erected on his resting place. The name given on his gravestone is Eddie McTier.[2]

He was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1981,[8] and into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990[citation needed].


The record label of one of McTell's most notable works, "Statesboro Blues".

One of McTell's most famous songs, "Statesboro Blues," was frequently covered by The Allman Brothers Band and is considered one of their earliest signature songs[citation needed]. A short list of some of the artists who also perform it includes Taj Mahal, David Bromberg, The Devil Makes Three and Ralph McTell, who changed his name on account of liking the song.[9] Ry Cooder covered McTell's "Married Man's a Fool" on his 1973 album, Paradise and Lunch. Jack White of The White Stripes considers McTell an influence, as their 2000 album De Stijl was dedicated to him and featured a cover of his song "Southern Can Mama". The White Stipes also covered McTell's "Lord, Send Me an Angel", releasing it as a single in 2000.

Bob Dylan has paid tribute to McTell on at least four occasions: Firstly, in his 1965 song "Highway 61 Revisited", the second verse begins with "Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose", referring to one of Blind Willie McTell's many recording names; later in his song "Blind Willie McTell", recorded in 1983 but released in 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3; then with covers of McTell's "Broke Down Engine" and "Delia" on his 1993 album, World Gone Wrong.;[10] also, in his song "Po'Boy", on 2001's "Love & Theft", which contains the lyric, "had to go to Florida dodging them Georgia laws", which comes from McTell's "Kill It Kid".[11]

A blues bar in Atlanta is named after McTell and regularly features blues musicians and bands[citation needed]. The Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival is held annually in Thomson, Georgia.[12] A new stage production about Blind Willie McTell will premier at the Averritt Arts Center in Willie's hometown of Statesboro, Georgia, in the summer of 2011. The show is entitled "Blind Willie: The Musical"[citation needed].



Year A-side B-side Label Cat. # Moniker Note
1927 "Stole Rider Blues" "Mr. McTell Got The Blues" Victor 21124 Blind Willie McTell
"Writing Paper Blues" "Mamma, Tain't Long Fo' Day" 21474
1928 "Three Women Blues" "Statesboro Blues" V38001
"Dark Night Blues" "Loving Talking Blues" V38032
1929 "Atlanta Strut" "Kind Mama" Columbia 14657-D Blind Sammie
"Travelin' Blues" "Come On Around To My House Mama" 14484-D
"Drive Away Blues" "Love Changing Blues" Victor V38580 Blind Willie McTell
1930 "Talking To Myself" "Razor Ball" Columbia 14551-D Blind Sammie
1931 "Southern Can Is Mine" "Broke Down Engine Blues" 14632-D
"Low Rider's Blues" "Georgia Rag" OKeh 8924 Georgia Bill
"Stomp Down Rider" "Scarey Day Blues" 8936
1932 "Mama, Let Me Scoop For You" "Rollin' Mama Blues" Victor 23328 Hot Shot Willie *w/Ruby Glaze
"Lonesome Day Blues" "Searching The Desert For The Blues" 23353
1933 "Savannah Mama" "B And O Blues No. 2" Vocalion 02568 Blind Willie
"Broke Down Engine" "Death Cell Blues" 02577
"Warm It Up To Me" "Runnin' Me Crazy" 02595
"It's A Good Little Thing" "Southern Can Mama" 02622
"Lord Have Mercy, If You Please" "Don't You See How This World Made A Change" 02623 *w/"Partner" (Curley Weaver)
"My Baby's Gone" "Weary Hearted Blues" 02668
1935 "Bell Street Blues" "Ticket Agent Blues" Decca 7078 Blind Willie McTell *w/Kate McTell
"Dying Gambler" "God Don't Like It" 7093
"Ain't It Grand To Be A Christian" "We Got To Meet Death One Day" 7130
"Your Time To Worry" "Hillbilly Willie's Blues" 7117
"Cold Winter Day" "Lay Some Flowers On My Grave" 7117
1950 "Kill It Kid" "Broke-Down Engine Blues" Atlantic 891 Barrelhouse Sammy
"River Jordan" "How About You" Regal 3260 Blind Willie
"It's My Desire" "Hide Me In Thy Bosom" 3272
"Love Changing Blues" "Talkin' To You Mama" 3277 Willie Samuel McTell *w/Curley Weaver
*attributed to "Pig and Whistle Band"
As an accompanist
Year Artist A-side B-side Label Cat. # Note
1927 Alfoncy and Bethenea Harris "Teasing Brown" "This Is Not The Stove To Brown Your Bread" Victor V38594
1931 Ruth Day "Experience Blues" "Painful Blues" Columbia 14642-D
1931 Mary Willis "Rough Alley Blues" "Low Down Blues" OKeh 8921
"Talkin' To You Wimmin' About The Blues" "Merciful Blues" 8932
1935 Curley Weaver "Tricks Ain't Walking No More" "Early Morning Blues" Decca 7077
"Sometime Mama" "Two-Faced Woman" 7906 *McTell plays only on B-side
"Oh Lawdy Mama" "Fried Pie Blues" 7664
1949 "My Baby's Gone" "Ticket Agent" Sittin' In With 547


Year Title Label Cat. # Note
1961 Last Session Bluesville BV 1040 *recorded in 1956
1966 Blind Willie McTell: 1940
Melodeon MLP 7323 *subtitled The Legendary Library of Congress Session
*recorded in 1940

Selected compilations

  • Blind Willie McTell 1927-1933: The Early Years - Yazoo L-1005 (1968)
  • Blind Willie McTell 1949: Trying To Get Home - Biograph BLP-12008 (1969)
  • King Of The Georgia Blues Singers (1929-1935) - Roots RL-324 (1969)
  • Atlanta Twelve String - Atlantic SD-7224 (1972)
  • Death Cell Blues - Biograph BLP-C-14 (1973)
  • Blind Willie McTell: 1927-1935 - Yazoo L-1037 (1974)
  • Blind Willie McTell: 1927–1949 The Remaining Titles - Wolf WSE 102 (1982)
  • Blues In The Dark - MCA 1368 (1983)
  • Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 1 - Document DOCD-5006 (1990)
  • Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 2 - Document DOCD-5007 (1990)
  • Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 3 - Document DOCD-5008 (1990)
    • these three albums were issued together as the box-set Statesboro Blues - Document DOCD-5677 (1990)
  • Complete Library of Congress Recordings in Chronological Order - RST Blues Documents BDCD-6001 (1990)
  • Pig 'n Whistle Red - Biograph BCD 126 (1993)
  • The Definitive Blind Willie McTell - Legacy C2K-53234 (1994)
  • The Classic Years 1927–1940 - JSP JSP7711 (2003)
  • King Of The Georgia Blues - Snapper SBLUECD504X (2007)

Selected compilation inclusions

  • Blind Willie McTell/Memphis Minnie: Love Changin' Blues - Biograph BLP-12035 (1971)
  • Atlanta Blues 1933 - JEMF 106 (1979)
  • Blind Willie McTell and Curley Weaver: The Post-War Years - RST Blues Documents BDCD 6014 (1990)


  1. ^ Harpe, Neil: Blind Willie's Guitars. Stella Guitars & Other Oscar Schmidt Instruments. Retrieved 19 July 2011.
  2. ^ a b Hal Jacobs, Decatur. New Georgia Encyclopedia: "Blind Willie" McTell (1898-1959). New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20 July 2011.
  3. ^ a b c Conner, Patrick. "Blind Willie McTell". East Coast Piedmont Blues. University of North Carolina. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  4. ^ Jacobs, Hal. "Blind Willie McTell". The New Georgia Encyclopedia. 2009-11-03. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  5. ^ a b Justin Green - Musical Legends (ISBN 0-86719-587-8)
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Blind Willie McTell". bluesnet. Retrieved 2006-11-17. 
  8. ^ Blues Foundation :: Inductees
  9. ^ Hockenhull, Chris. "Streets of London: The Official Biography of Ralph McTell", p. 40. Northdown, 1997. ISBN 1-900711-02-8.
  10. ^ In his sleeve notes for World Gone Wrong, Dylan wrote: "'Broke Down Engine' is a Blind Willie McTell masterpiece... it's about Ambiguity, the fortunes of the privileged elite, flood control — watching the red dawn not bothering to dress.(sic)'
  11. ^ Kill it Kid, Last Session, Bluesville BV 1040, Released 1962
  12. ^
  • Charters, Samuel Sweet as the Showers of Rain (Oak Publications) pp 120–131

External links

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