The Never Ending Tour, the absolute highlights. Blind Willie McTell

by Tony Attwood

This recording comes from 23 October 1997.

Now of course not only are the performances that I choose for this series a very personal reflection, they are also reflections that change from day to day.   So I must admit that my inclusion of this version of this song is slightly influenced by the fact that I found myself writing about Blind Willie McTell just the other day in the “Lyrics and Music” series.

But I’ve gone for this version as my favourite, because of the way the backing track with its four-chord accompaniment after each line of the verse is maintained throughout.  It gives us a solidity to the song which wasn’t there before.  Which is not to say that other versions are not excellent musically, but rather that this arrangement goes that little bit further.

If one listens, for example, to the “God is up in His heaven” verse which is more gentle than the others, that backing music is still there at the end of each line.  What’s more, the follow-up line “And we are what was His” seems to take on a much greater meaning here.

I think what really works for me is the entanglement of the instruments here, symbolising (to me if to no one else) the entanglement of the concepts of the almighty God and His creation.

But going right back to the beginning I think also that Bob gets a feel in his singing that is not always there, from the very start with

Seen the arrow on the doorpostSaying this land is condemned

We also get a couple of instrumental breaks which I think work really well, but as ever that seems to be done at the expense of a couple of verses.  I’ve mentioned this before in these articles: it appears that Bob has a concept of how many verses there are going to be, so if a couple of them are instrumental, then that means a couple of the sung verses are dropped.

Is there a logic in that?   I can’t see it, but Bob of course knows, and it is after all his piece.  But just so you know (not that you don’t know anyway) what we lose are

Seen them big plantations burningHear the cracking of the whipsSmell that sweet magnolia bloomingSee the ghost of slavery ship

There's a chain gang on the highwayI can hear them rebels yellAnd I know no one can sing the bluesLike Blind Wille McTell

Of course, this is not a song where each verse follows the other – it is a song of atmosphere and consideration, not of logical sequence.   But I guess I just always want more and more.

But at least thanks to those who make the recordings, and to Mike Johnson for curating them, we do have the recordings.

The Absolute Highlights series


  1. Up it a bit more, but solidarity is still not given to the song if the sorrowful lyrics are paid any attention to … as I asume some listeners do.

    “Let’s get another good whipping down at the plantation like we did last summer … like we did last fall” is not the way the song is meant to heard.

  2. – (I)t means nothing so wear your top hat
    – travel a slow ship back
    to your guilt, your pollution, the
    kingdom of the blues …
    (Bob Dylan: Tarantula)

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