Blind Willie McTell: the meaning behind Bob Dylan’s song

Blind Willie McTell

This review updated 8 October 2016 including the addition of the link to the Dylan recording of the electric version of this song – see the end of the review, and some further thoughts on the lack of connection between the song and the actual Willie McTell.

I suspect that for most of us, Blind Willie McTell was the name of a blues singer whose music we had never heard or gone looking for, before hearing this song.

I suspect also that for most of us it is unimaginable that such a wonderful piece of music should not appear on a mainstream album from Bob Dylan.

There have been other instances of such oddness on Dylan’s part – the delay in releasing Mississippi, for example, and the issues surrounding Dignity. In the case of the former, the original version was a love song that Dylan didn’t want to reveal – and he had to wait until he had re-written it as a political commentary. In the latter case, the piece is flawed. It is a masterpiece, but it isn’t right (as the multiple attempts to play it in different ways show. In effect it is hard to find the right way to cope with the piece – but more on that when I move on to that song).

But Blind Willie McTell falls into neither category. It is not only a perfect song, with not a word out of place, the classic recording that we have is itself wonderful. The slightly out of time piano works. The guitars work. Why not release it?

Well maybe he was waiting for the perfect electric version – the link to which I have added below.

But we also have Dylan’s own words on the subject – he has several times commented that the song was never finished to his satisfaction, and that at least gives us a clue as to where to go looking.  For if we can find what Dylan thought was wrong with the piece we can probably get a greater understanding of the song.

The first insight I can offer is that the song has nothing to do with the music of Blind Willie McTell. My source – “Atlanta Strut” – is a fine collection, and I am told it is representative of Willie McTell’s work. But it raises the question – what is the connection between the songs of McTell’s and Dylan’s song, aside from the fact that we know that Dylan has always admired the work of McTell. He once called McTell the Van Gough of country blues.

Heylin, in one of his more interesting moments suggests that Dylan was either having a problem or playing a game.  I’d agree with Heylin (for once) that McTell certainly doesn’t fit the notion of the Van Gough of country blues at any level, but Heylin then goes on to suggest that the person really wanted to sing about was Blind Willie Johnson, but he couldn’t find the rhymes!  (“In my time of Dying” is a reworking of a Johnson song).

In fact, on the surface there isn’t a connection between what Dylan is singing about and Blind Willie McTell.   Indeed even in the original version of this review which I wrote before I read Heylin’s commentary I noted that Dylan was “not singing at all about McTell – it is just a throw away line in the song, that no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. Where is the connection between the famous line about ‘power and greed and corruptible seed’ and a song like ‘I got religion and I’m so glad’?”

In fact the link there is probably with Johnson’s fundamental form of religious belief – that we have all been corrupted since the Garden of Eden, which isn’t really an issue that Willie McTell dealt with.”

There is not even the fact that McTell suffered in the way that, for example, Skip James suffered and most certainly Blind Willie Johnson suffered.   But, on the other hand, Blind Willie McTell did record Dyin’ Crapshooters Blues which uses the melody of St James Hotel, which is central to the storyline (the “hotel” being the St James Infirmary).

Musically, Dylan’s song is a true masterpiece – although in effect a borrowed masterpiece. Back to strophic form, as it has to be for a song about the blues, it never tires through verse after verse, because of the unusual chord structure.

So although there are all the religious references lurking in the background, we are also edged towards the references to Willie McTell being a reference to the whole issue of slavery, and the music of the slaves and their descendents. “There’s a chain gang on the highway”… the humiliation of the people continues generation to generation. But even here it doesn’t quite work – because if humiliation is the theme, then Bilnd Willie McTell isn’t the man to cite.

In the end, we get a clue as to where we are going, appropriately, at the end…

Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

And that is the clue. St James Hotel was nothing to do with Willie McTell – except McTell did record the song St James Infirmary Blues (on which Dylan’s tune is based) under the title “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues”

The melody is a derivative, and the song wasn’t about who he said it was about, and I suspect Dylan might well have been able to deal with one, but wasn’t too happy with both hitting him, which probably explains why he didn’t put it on an album.

Dylan wrote the song in either late 1982 or early 1983, but didn’t play it at a concert until 5 August 1997.  At the moment of writing the last time I have it as being played live is 16 July 2015, with the song being played 225 times.  It took a while to get there, but he did get there in the end.


This entry was posted in Bootleg Series volume 3, Essential Bob Dylan, The Songs. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Blind Willie McTell: the meaning behind Bob Dylan’s song

  1. Martin Haber says:

    Dear Tony,
    I want to first say THANK YOU for this wonderful, insightful, helpful website…I stumbled upon it while getting material ready for a course I proposed, and will be offering for the first time, I am calling “Dylan and The Counterculture of the 1960’s”, designed for fellow teacher- retirees in my teachers’ union, here in NYC (the course will be held on Staten Island, the equivalent, in my mind, of Bob’s “Lowlands”, or “Subterranean Home”, or anyplace OUTSIDE “The Gates of Eden”..but then again, I’m from Brooklyn, so there are reasons I feel this disdain!) Anyway, I was “knocked out loaded” (sorry, can’t help these Dylan allusions!) when I first heard “Blind Willie McTell” as performed with great depth and sinister weight by Tom Morello The Night Watchman on “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan”, the Amnesty International project. I still have not hear Dylan sing it! You are so correct to include an analysis here, and to express the disbelief that I share with you that it is so late in appearing for the general public! By the way, the same collection has many beautiful covers, including Billy Bragg doing “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”, which, again, I have not heard Dylan ever himself perform, but which I am considering including, in my seminar, as a “lost” environmental- themed gem, underlined with Old Testament /Psalm of David-like sensibility, as in “I gazed down in the river’s mirror/ And watched its winding strum/ The water smooth ran like a hymn/ And like a harp did hum”. And shades of “Tambourine Man” here, as well, and of Dylan addressing the mighty waters, I think of as a favorite tripe (?) (“Watching the River Flow”, “The Grand Coullie (?)Dam” from “Idiot Wind”, etc, etc)… I’d love to know your thoughts on these “takes”, and whether you think “Lay Down” is or is not one of Dylan’s better songs/elegies from early on. I am concentrating, by the way, on “Dylan and The Civil Rights Movement/ Dylan before electric/ Dylan as a folkie”, for the first/introductory meeting of the class, leaving the visionary/surreal, and the prophetic/world-weary/and ultimately resurrected Dylan for the 2nd and 3rd meetings! The “Classification of Dylan Songs” is a great “map”, by the way! ps As far as other great covers, are you familiar with the Reggae album/cd of Dylan songs (I forget the title), which has as its one Dylan-sung song, “I and I’? It woke me up, for the 100th time, to the universalism of Dylan, and how smoothly, with some tunes, it translated to a Reggae, and even a Rasta, worldview- there is a terrific version of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” included, well worth checking out- but I bet you are well aware of all this! Anyway, thanks again for the site, cheers!!!

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Not aware of all this at all. Thanks for the leads and for your very kind comments. I really do appreciate them

    Tony

  3. Thelonious says:

    I always saw this song as related to Dylan’s assertion that truth is to be found in songs.

    The song says, in effect, that the world is corrupt and uncertain, but the one thing I can be certain of is the old traditional music

  4. m ellenberger says:

    I will try to put my understanding into words. Each of the verses suggest a scene of inexpressible grief, and Dylan despairs, humbly suggesting that only “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”. McTell, of course, can be read/understood so many ways, a black minstrel, a Southern bluesman, an American folk tradition, more, maybe less. A song of such profound sadness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *