Atlantic SD 7224 – Blind Willie McTell, “Atlanta Twelve String” [Blues Originals, Vol. 1]
Atlanta is a strange city, one of many contrasts. Today one can see a scar seared in the middle of the black southern area in which is located Atlanta Stadium. Edging on the scar and needed arteries is the black ghetto – Decatur Street is not far off, and that is the main street in that section of town. Another contrast is the relative affluence of the city ensconced in a state full of Army bases, red dirt, kudzu, and poor people [white and black]. Atlanta is a good city, but it is a bit on the strange side – though this may be due to its context.
There has been a great deal of musical activity in Atlanta, and many good bluesmen [and women] lived and/or recorded there. Being at the southern end of the Piedmont belt (geographically and musically) resulted in there being a regional modification of the prevalent Piedmont style. This [style] was most popularized by Blind Boy Fuller, and was recorded commercially from the late twenties into the fifties. In addition, there were strictly local talents, as well as “passers through”.
In the twenties there were a great many musicians in and about town. People such as Peg Leg Howell, Eddie Anthony, “Barbecue Bob” (Robert Hicks), Eddie Mapp, Fred McMullen, “Charlie Lincoln” (Charlie Hicks), Ruth Willis, Buddy Moss, [Ed Andrews], and Curley Weaver were found at the parties, dances, and suppers. They were also found on record – especially the original Columbia and OKeh – and seemingly sold rather well. Howell, Anthony, et al worked in the string band tradition, while the Hicks brothers tended to work solo, or with each other, depending on the circumstances, and they all had a connection to Atlanta’s best, Blind Willie McTell.
McTell was a true twelve-string guitar wizard – he backed up some of the above, and used Moss, McMullen, and especially Curley Weaver as second to him. He recorded some eighty blues and gospel songs [commercially] from 1927 to 1936, and made a couple of sessions after that – the last being in 1956. His finger-picking style on his awkward instrument is instantly recognized, as is his use of a bottleneck on it on occasion. He is a masterful, mysterious musician of whom little is known.
Connoisseurs of post war “Rhythm and Blues” and blues were long intrigued by an early Atlantic record released on 78 under the name of “Barrelhouse Sammy – The Country Boy”. It was instantly obvious that the pseudonym hid the identity of that great blues singer of the 1920’s and 30’s, Blind Willie McTell. What they didn’t know was how many other titles Atlantic had recorded, the only clue being the gap of two master numbers between Kill It Kid (A 320) and Broke Down Engine (A 323), the two titles on the 78.
When Pete Lowry, Mike Leadbitter, and myself visited Atlantic in 1969 our intent was simple but our hope of success or cooperation, from past experience, in doubt. We wanted to see the early company files covering the years before Atlantic was a giant corporation and take down missing discographical details to fill in our knowledge of the company’s activities and plug gaps in Mike’s book (with Neil Slaven), BLUES RECORDS: 1943 – 1966. Some companies dislike (not unnaturally) strangers peering through their past, but Atlantic didn’t mind as a phone call by Mike brought a positive “come on over and have a look” response. However, many companies do not have vital information on their activities of twenty years ago; they didn’t keep files very accurately and often what they did keep was lost, stolen, mislaid or destroyed! We held our breath as we made our way! Upon arrival in the mid-morning we were shown out to a hall[way] where the master books are kept. Mostly these are impressive ledgers, looking suitably important to document the huge hits and important jazz Atlantic has recorded. Lying there among all those was a quarto-bound writing book rather like those used in schools. This contained, in a painstaking pen, hand-written details of Atlantic’s first sessions. Our excitement increased as we at first glanced, and then, suitably ensconced in one of the studios, studiously pored over the contents. Posssibly the most important news was that
the lone 78 of McTell came from a session of no less than fifteen titles! The next question was, of course, did they still exist? Originally recorded into [16”] acetate discs on location in Atlanta, the consensus of opinion was that they didn’t. Atlantic staff had already looked, but it was a big job. Eventually they were found in good shape, and the last great block of titles recorded commercially by this superb artist can at last be heard by the record buyer twenty-plus years after they were recorded.
Pseudonyms were a McTell stock-in-trade, having used Blind Sammie (for Columbia in the late twenties/early thirties), Georgia Bill (for OKeh at the same time), Hot Shot Willie (for Victor in 1932), Blind Willie (for Vocalion in the thirties and Regal in the fifties), Pig ‘n’ Whistle Red (for Regal again), and Barrelhouse Sammie for Atlantic. He reverted to Blind Willie McTell when recording for Decca in 1935, and the Library of Congress (for John Lomax) in 1940. As this was the name on his first recordings for Victor in 1927, it come to be taken as “his own”, but what he called himself most of the time is beyond our direct knowledge. In conversations with people who knew him (i.e. Buddy Moss, Piano Red, and others in the Atlanta area), he is always referred to as “Blind Willie” – his full name appearing occasionally in the City Directory. All this tells little about the gentleman, but he recorded prolifically before the Second Word war and knew how to dodge contract commitments!
Little is really known about McTell, born May 5, 1901 in Statesboro, Georgia, but he was best-known in Atlanta where reports of his activities have been preserved, notably via recordings made for the Library of Congress by John Lomax in 1940. These recordings, only made available to the public in the mid-1960’s, reveal for the first time the depth of the McTell songbag. A “last session” done non-professionally in 1955 was unearthed and released by Prestige in 1960, which underlined this breadth of repertoire and caused consternation among collectors who had hitherto regarded McTell as purely a “blues singer”. The 1949 session issued here reinforces this impression [of breadth] even more.
John Lomax’s interview at the Library of Congress session with McTell, who was probably blind from infancy, reveals a quick-wittedness quite in accordance with reports of his uncanny sense of direction. After locating McTell, Lomax was unable to remember how to get back to the hotel – “I’ll show you, said totally blind Willie. Between us and the hotel there were six or eight right-angled cross streets and two places where five or six streets crossed. Chatting all the way while with me, blind Willie called every turn, even mentioning the location of the stop-lights. He gave the names of the buildings as we passed them. Stored in his mind was an accurate detailed photograph of Atlanta.” This ability allowed him to travel apparently unhindered by his affliction, to far and distant parts, following carnivals, circuses, and medicine shows during the first half of this century.
Other similar remembrances come from Buddy Moss, Herb Abramson, and Piano Red – the latter remembering Willie taking him by train to Augusta to record for Vocalion in 1938. It was Red’s first trip out of the Atlanta area! Buddy “related one story of McTell’s taking them (i.e. Moss and Curley Weaver) clear across New York once and said that after one subway ride, he could find his way back again. Apparently McTell was quite independent and needed no one to lead him… He’d just catch a bus [or trolley] and ride… ‘the only thing to confuse him was a ten-dollar bill.’”
It is interesting that in the early 20’s he attended a school for the blind in Macon attended by the great hillbilly artist Riley Puckett, and speculation as to the identity of the “darkey in Atlanta” who taught Puckett his guitar tour de force “Darkey’s Wail”, is intriguing.
McTell played a twelve-string guitar most of the time, giving his songs a deep, rich background, but with a lightness of touch and variability [in his finger-picking] not associated with other contemporaries of the twelve such as Barbecue Bob, Willie Baker, or Charlie Lincoln with their hard, chordal approach. He sounds like no other artist, nor does he apparently subscribe to the trends set by other artists in the developmental period in recorded blues, men like Big Bill Broonzy or Blind Blake.
This is a point open to some conjecture – he no doubt heard Blind Lemon Jefferson or his records (as seen by his version of “One Dime Blues”), and some blues artists of the Piedmont region play similarly when they pick up a twelve-string. Jefferson and Blake were prodigious influences on blues-singers in the 20’s… how much being hard to gauge. Atlanta records of the 20’s and 30’s are usually instantly recognizable; so is McTell, but he is apart from the rest – a great folksinger, blues singer, and guitarist whose immense talent has only been fully appreciated in recent years. Why Alan Lomax who did so much to promote Lead Belly, overlooked a similar opportunity with McTell, is hard to understand[]; he has the compelling dramatic voice of the best bluesmen coupled with the wit and imagery of the greatest folk-poet[]. This facet was at least remembered by Ahmet Ertegun, and the songs on this album are the result.
Sam Charters mentions this McTell session in his 1959 book, THE COUNTRY BLUES, “The Atlantic record, “Broke Down Engine” and “Kill It, Kid”, on At 891, was one of the most perplexing records in the blues field. He simply walked into the Atlantic studios in 1949, auditioned and recorded without any reference to his remarkable past”.[] This is a lovely, but apocryphal [story]. The Erteguns of Atlantic Records started out as jazz fans and collectors of records – they even published a small magazine while in California. From this background Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson began the record company in 1947 – stressing jazz and jazz-based releases. It was their distributor in Atlanta who alerted Ahmet to Blind Willie’s presence in town. Realizing that this was the same who made many blues and gospel sides pre-war, he went down and recorded him there. The two sides issued are excellent, but were not exactly a commercial proposition in 1949. A lone black man singing and playing in that style wasn’t a seller and the remainder of the session was never issued. Such songs as “Broke Down Engine Blues”, with its rich double meanings, or “Dying Crap Shooters Blues”, an incredible funeral chant which goes back to variants collected in the 19th Century and probably older, do give an indication of McTell’s ability. “Little Delia” is a brilliantly told story while several items are of well-loved themes such as Blind Lemon’s “Last Dime Blues” or the eternal “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” given McTell’s personalized guitar treatment.
At the time these records were made, McTell was very closely allied to another fine Atlanta artist, Curley Weaver, whose presence here on some numbers is uncertain, but possible. He may be on guitar on one or two titles – they played so closely together it is often hard to separate them. Willie does call out on some numbers, “take/[kick] it, six”, or some similar command, but this may be out of habit rather than the result of a second guitar actually being present. The twelve-string guitar gives such a very full sound and what sounds like another guitarist could be a touch of echo.
McTell’s religious bent, following a dual-role taken by countless blues artists like Jefferson or Charlie Patton, many of whom changed their names when they donned their “cloth”, is well illustrated by the five of the titles on Side 2. His style changes little, but for the use of the bottleneck, his attack or feeling not at all; whether he had a deep religious sense or not, we shall never know, for a half-century of singing for his meals on the streets all over the eastern states had no doubt taught him to sing like he meant it, whatever the subject. Of necessity was no doubt born the patience, sensitivity, and observation, which made this man a giant among folk artists. It is a terrible shame it took him so long, as it has other great artists in many other fields, to gain the recognition he so richly deserved while still alive. Though still alive as late as 1966, it seems likely that McTell is dead[], though [the] how, when, and where we still do not know. All he left us is his beautiful music, a heritage whose worth will be accentuated by the release of these superb performances.
Simon A. Napier – 1972 co-editor BLUES UNLIMITED (with: Peter B. Lowry, contributor)
“Kill It Kid” “The Razor Ball” “Little Delia” “Broke Down Engine Blues” “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues” “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” “Blues Around Midnight” “Last Dime Blues
“On The Cooling Board” “Motherless Children Have a Hard Time”
“I Got to Cross the River Jordan” “You Got To Die” “Ain’t It Grand To Live a Christian” “Pearly Gates” “Soon This Morning”
Blind Willie McTell (as “Barrelhouse Sammy”) – vo/gtr. Atlanta, GA – 1949 Original production by: Ahmet Ertegun Herb Abramson
“Blues Originals” series concept and album production: Pete Lowry (a/k/a/ Peter B. Lowry)
 John A. Lomax, Library of Congress Recordings – Biograph records
 Bastin & Lowry, Blues Unlimited #67 Nov. 1969 “Tricks Ain’t Working No More – Part 1”