McTELL bits –
Like a number of us blues aficionados, I came to said music partially through the late Sam Charters’ book, THE COUNTRY BLUES – especially when later abetted by the similarly titled Folkways/RBF LP album. For once, one was able to hear a number of the musicians and/or songs read about in the book, something that is SOP for music books today. [This was certainly a bonus when one is reading about the music and isn’t a heavy-duty record collector!] As did many “American” fans, I came to blues through jazz and not fifties R&B/Rock & Roll, which was certainly the vector for many UK friends. An employee of my father back in the day had sat in the first trumpet chair in a few name dance/big bands (Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, a.o.). He still subscribed to down beat (then a bi-weekly), and when he found out I was interested in jazz, he passed them on to me. Between that publication, and Nat Hentoff’s then-new journal, THE JAZZ REVIEW, there was the beginnings of the occasional blues LP being reviewed back in the late fifties/early sixties. They were truly few and far between back then! One of those magazines also had a review of the Charters book.
The LP itself was full of beautiful and ear-opening old blues 78s that few like me had heard of at that time (save maybe the NY Blues Mafia!) back in the mid-to-late fifties. The one piece that resonated most with me was “Statesboro Blues” by Blind Willie McTell, which nailed me to my chair with its opening introductory bars of 12-string guitar. Not Robert Johnson or anyone else on the disc (“Delta” or otherwise) had that sort of impact on me – McTell did that with his voice, his playing, and his songs… and he still does. He lurked about in my inquiring mind for a decade or so until I began my own field research trips into the SE (ca. 1970) and I was always on the lookout for folks who knew or knew about Willie, with some small results.
My decade “in the field” was productive in so many ways, although not necessarily “compleat” in outcome – with McTell, it was a bit thin on the ground. I even went to Statesboro one day and happened to see an old couple sitting on their front porch. I stopped and asked about Blind Willie McTell, but that name rang no bells for them. They did remember Blind Blake coming through town and playing in a local barbershop, though, and also a local musician named Blind Doogue* who played the guitar. Whatever I found out over the years was freely put into the ongoing research pot so that everyone’s bits might possibly add up to something.
One of the places in Atlanta I went to as a result of a recommendation (I have forgotten from whom these days… possibly Jim Pettigrew) was the office of The Metropolitan Atlanta Society for the (Colored**) Blind. It took some time for me to get across what I (a strange, hairy White guy from NJ) wanted from them and was non-threatening! Eventually, an individual who remembered Willie was located on the premises; she told me that he used to sing in the “glee club” and had a lovely voice. I agreed. That made me more acceptable and they dug around their files, coming up with a single sheet of paper with his name on it.
There was little of note (no pun intended!) thereon (e.g. – no birth date) save for the notation that Willie McTell could distinguish between light and dark! Now, Buddy Moss had told of how McTell could tell the difference between makes of cars, even telling their color. Moss was very much in awe of Willie’s independence. When he went to NYC with Willie and Curley Weaver in 1933, McTell left them off at their hotel and proceeded on his own through the city, mainly on the subways (UK: underground) and getting back to the studio in time for the ARC recording sessions the next day! When I went back a day or so later, though, to ask them to photocopy the document for me, it could no longer be located! On another front, his one-time neighbor Emmett Gates*** (at 1003 Dimmock Street – SW****) said that Willie would feel the front fender of a car and tell its make, model, year, etc. He also told of how McTell would go off down the street with his guitar and a pocket full of bottlenecks to the corner each day to catch a street-car (UK: tram), and go off about his busking business. Gates said the only thing that “caught” McTell out was an inability to distinguish a one dollar bill from a ten dollar one! Gates did mention that a time or two that Willie was mugged for his money and guitar while going home at night – it was never easy being poor, Black, and blind… then or now. Apparently, this Dimmock Street location was also where Ed Rhodes drove McTell on a few occasions when they were finished at Ed’s record store back in the fifties! Willie was listed in many city directories as living there during that time, often with Helen as his wife.
So there you have it: It’s not much. William Samuel McTell/McTier could tell light from dark, was highly independent and sociable, and was well liked and remembered throughout his community. Not a lot factually, but it opens up ever so slightly what kind of person he was. I always wish that I could have met him… he, and Blind Blake!
* It was way later that I learned that that was the name he went by in his “hometown” of Statesboro! Another lead missed – it was never easy or obvious “out there” on the ground!!
** As it was originally known back in the day of segregated everything.
*** Gates was a relative of Rev. James M. Gates, one of the most popular African American preachers who sold lots of sermon recordings on 78 up until his death in 1945. He described his cousin’s funeral as the biggest Atlanta had ever seen until Martin Luther King!
**** This was an interesting structure and contained four apartments – there were many such buildings along the street at that time. It was like a cube with two apartments on the ground floor with entrance door on the side of the building and two on the next floor with entrances on the front. Both floors had porches at their doors. The top floor was about street level as the ground sloped off strongly in the back – that is why the ground floor apartments had their entrances on the side. Looking at Google Street View, I cannot see the house today – that labeled as 1003 Dimmock Street–SW seems a newer structure, although I could be wrong and it has been rehabbed in some way. The street was a poor, but neat and clean tree-lined thoroughfare, well taken care of by the residents. (Similarly to Buddy Moss’ Richardson Street-SE neighborhood at that time – his house seems to have vanished.)
PETERB.LOWRY Sydney, Australia 2015
To be published: The Frog Blues & Jazz Annual – No. 5 (2016)