Bob Dylan: the Lyrics and the music. The transmutation of Blind Willie McTell

Please note we have had a technical problem near the end of this article while adding the recordings.  If you are unable to read the conclusion of the piece please press “refresh” and give the article maybe 20 seconds to sort itself out.  I am still working on the technical whatnots.

By Tony Attwood

In my view one of the many important points in coming to understand Bob Dylan as a composer of music, rather than as a lyricist or poet, is to listen to the way the music sets the scene at the start of each recording or live performance.

Blind Willie McTell is a perfect example of this.  Everyone knows the open lines…

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying this land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem

but not everyone can immediately recall quite what the music is doing across the eight bars that launch the original version of the song.

The guitar comes in, and then the electric piano, but the piano joins in a very disjointed way on the half-beat at the end of the bar before giving us the first sound of the opening melody.  It is indeed a singularly tentative start and we are not quite sure what’s what until we get to “Jerusalem” by which time the beat is established and we know we have a variation of “St James Infirmary” being played.

And then, having got itself established the music modulates – meaning it changes key.   The third line of each four finishes is in the major key, the other three lines are very much in the minor.

Such an approach gives the line “Nobody can sing the blues like” a fundamental place within the music.

Listening again to the original version of the song, the other central point that comes across is how Dylan varies the power between the opening verse and the St James Hotel verse.

But the vamping on piano (playing the chords on varying beats as in the instrumental conclusion of the piece) feels as if it needs a slightly more accomplished pianist at this point.   In fact, to my ears the power developed in the conclusion is not helped by the way the piano is played; to me it needs more sophistication, despite the focal point of the lyrics.

However none of that can take away from the power of the lyrics, such as…

I travel through east Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I dont know one can sing the blues
Like blind Willie McTell

By the time we get to the “Springtime in New York” recording the musical background has become more sophisticated, and although the piano part is far less dominant, it is still giving us the chordal accompaniment which remains as unsophisticated as before.


But we now have the bass and drums to hold the song together.   However, all the time we can hear the piano pounding those same chords without any extra sophistication which is now added by the other instrumentation.

But now just compare that with this version – the music starts on 1 minute.   And now we can hear the song without that very limited piano part.

Suddenly the song is liberated and we have a new set of meanings, despite the lyrics being the same.  We can hear this in evolution again in a recording from 2011 in Hong Kong which Mike Johnson highlighted for us.




Now my point in all this is that Bob obviously writes and records his songs in accordance with what he can achieve as a performing artist, and in the case of “Blind Willie” he perfectly reasonably considered for the first recording that electric piano and bass with the tapping of a persistent rhythm on the off beat (beats 2 and 4 of each bar) would make it work.   And yes it does work brilliantly – except that as the song builds Bob didn’t have the technical ability to carry the piano part off.    Take out that piano part and add a banjo and you get something else; in fact a different song.

A really fascinating evolution of the accompaniment of the song in fact, which allows Dylan to change the way the lyrics are delivered and hence change the meaning of the entire song.   Playing that Hong Kong recording and the original version in fact come as quite a shock.  The lyrics are the same, but the song has mutated into something completely different.





  1. Content cannot be ignored. The legacy of slavery meshes with the sorrowful delivery of the original McTell.

    A temporary uplifting (in the perforemance of the song with a banjo) does not give the lyrics of the song a completely new meaning.


  2. The Hollywood version is indeed a different song, but certainly not one that would have made the song canonical. It seems designed for Hollywood, glitzy, trivial and upbeat. “Hey slavery sure led to some great music, eh? And that blind guy sure overcame a lot of obstacles, huh! Might make a good biopic!” I prefer every other version I’ve heard.

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