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On This Day In History: In Memory of Blind Willie McTell

On this day in history, August 19, 1959, Blind Willie McTell passed away.  To honor this great musician we have excerpted his biography from Oxford Music Online‘s Encyclopedia of Popular Music.  When you are done reading the post check out some of his music here.

McTell, Blind Willie

b. 5 May 1901, McDuffie County, Georgia, USA, d. 19 August 1959, Almon, Georgia, USA.

Blind from birth, McTell began to learn guitar in his early years, under the influence of relatives and neighbours in Statesboro, Georgia, where he grew up. In his late teens, he attended a school for the blind. By 1927, when he made his first records, he was already a very accomplished guitarist, with a warm and beautiful vocal style, and his early sessions produced classics such as ‘Statesboro Blues’, ‘Mama Tain’t Long Fo Day’ and ‘Georgia Rag’. During the 20s and 30s, he travelled extensively from a base in Atlanta, making his living from music and recording, on a regular basis, for three different record companies, sometimes using pseudonyms which included Blind Sammie and Georgia Bill. Most of his records feature a 12-string guitar, popular among Atlanta musicians, but particularly useful to McTell for the extra volume it provided for singing on the streets. Few, if any, blues guitarists could equal his mastery of the 12-string. He exploited its resonance and percussive qualities on his dance tunes, yet managed a remarkable delicacy of touch on his slow blues. In 1934, he married, and the following year recorded some duets with his wife, Kate, covering sacred as well as secular material.

In 1940, John Lomax recorded McTell for the Folk Song Archive of the Library of Congress, and the sessions, which have since been issued in full, feature him discussing his life and his music, as well as playing a variety of material. These offer an invaluable insight into the art of one of the true blues greats. In the 40s, he moved more in the direction of religious music, and when he recorded again in 1949 and 1950, a significant proportion of his songs were spiritual. Only a few tracks from these sessions were issued at the time, but most have appeared in later years. They reveal McTell to be as commanding as ever, and indeed, some of the recordings rank among his best work. In 1956, he recorded for the last time at a session arranged by a record shop manager, unissued until the 60s. Soon after this, he turned away from the blues to perform exclusively religious material. His importance was eloquently summed up by Bob Dylan in his strikingly moving elegy, ‘Blind Willie McTell’.

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