Born: May 5, 1901 in Thomson GA
Died: August 19, 1959 in Milledgeville GA
At once both one of the most accomplished and yet most obscure of early-era Southern bluesmen, Blind Willie McTell was an engaging vocalist with a refined style. He was also a phenomenal guitarist who played the 12-string guitar in a unique style, finger-picking and playing slide instead of using the instrument to play mere rhythms, making the 12-string sound like two different instruments.
McTell performed in a wide variety of blues forms, from traditional Piedmont blues and ragtime to hillbilly music and spiritual numbers. McTell recorded prolifically across four decades, and his work would influence a generation of country bluesmen, as well as white folk singers and even blues-rock bands. The Allman Brothers recorded McTell's "Statesboro Blues" in 1969, the song becoming one of the band's signature performances.
Blind Willie McTell - Atlanta's Best-Known Bluesman
William Samuel McTell (his family name could have been McTier) was born in Thomson GA and raised in nearby Statesboro. Although there is some question about whether McTell was born blind, or became sightless later in life, it is generally agreed upon that he had attended at least three schools for the blind across the country, and could read Braille.
He was taught to play guitar by his mother, and after her death McTell would leave home to play with traveling medicine shows and carnivals. McTell also performed the usual Southern circuit of fish fries and house parties, often accompanying other Atlanta-based bluesmen like Buddy Moss.
McTell began his recording career in 1927, performing at two sessions for Victor that resulted in eight sides, including the classic "Statesboro Blues." He recorded steadily through 1932. Since bluesmen were usually paid for each song they recorded, with no future royalties forthcoming, McTell would often record under different names to maximize his income, using the pseudonyms "Blind Sammie," "Hot Shot Willie" and "Georgia Bill," among others during sessions. McTell was signed with both the Columbia and Okeh labels, under different names, when the two companies merged in the early-1930s.
Re-Discovered by Alan Lomax
Because his first recordings were made and released during the dregs of the Depression, McTell didn’t enjoy the commercial success of many of his peers. He remained enormously popular in Atlanta, though, and he continued to live and perform in the area through the end of his life. He became so well-known in the region that folk music historian Alan Lomax traveled to Georgia in 1940 to record McTell for the Library of Congress, capturing better than a dozen songs.
After World War II, McTell was signed to the newly-formed Atlantic Records in 1949, a label better-known for jazz and R&B than the blues. McTell recorded 15 songs for Atlantic, but only one single was ever released, and when it didn’t meet sales expectations, McTell's other songs were shelved for over 20 years.
McTell remained a familiar figure on Atlanta's Decatur Street, performing on the street corner for tips, often with his friend Curley Weaver. McTell recorded sporadically throughout the 1950s, delivering sides for the Regal and Prestige-Bluesville labels. His commercial fortunes never improved, however, and he left music in 1956, becoming the pastor of a local church before his death in 1959.
Recommended Albums: Any of the many collections released on Blind Willie McTell are worthwhile, but two stand out in particular. Document's Complete Library of Congress Recordings include the Lomax sessions while The Definitive Blind Willie McTell offers all of the bluesman's sides for the Columbia and Okeh labels. Sadly, no definitive compilation includes all of McTell's Victor recordings, however they are available on several different import albums.