Willie Samuel McTell (1901-1959) was born in Thomson, Georgia, between the Mississippi Delta and the rapidly urbanizing Piedmont section of the Carolinas and Virginia. His geographical positioning had everything to do with the savory blend of musical idioms incorporated into his blues. Even though The Essential has thirty six tracks spread over two discs, there is not a dull moment here. McTell throws the listener so many looks it is hard at times to believe the same artist made all of these recordings. And if you hadn’t known Willie McTell, the country boy picking and singing on the streets of Atlanta in the ‘30s, you would have easily mistaken him for one of his half dozen or so aliases. He recorded for as many labels under as many monikers as he had styles to draw upon.
But McTell was no mockingbird. Although he played many standards and spirituals like most early century bluesmen, no one had as unusual a voice or played the guitar as smoothly. On the opening track, “Three Women Blues”, McTell’s refined tenor sounds—dare I say it—like Wayne Newton? And while we’re being lulled along by his delicate slide work (on a 12-string, no less) he speaks of racial demarcations that are certain to be offensive to the postmodern listener—“Memphis yellow”, “Savannah brown”, and “Statesboro darkskin”—identify the three ladies Willie has to choose from. Regarding his voice, one commentator suggested that McTell tried to imitate white hillbilly singers. That is doubtful. McTell had a keen sense of inflection as to know when a warble would add irony to his caustic lyrics. “Boll Weevil” and “Delia” find him sounding remarkably similar to a young Elvis Presley, but then we remember who copied whom.
In a genre marked by repetitive chord progressions and stock themes, what marks out McTell as a stylist? Think of his contemporaries. Imagine Charley Patton during the flooding (“High Water Everywhere”) along the Delta in 1927. He’s running through the streets in rhythm to his bending, hammered-on base lines. The doctor’s have warned him about his heart condition, but he doesn’t care. He’s on the move, headed for Vicksburg, trying to escape God’s wrath and laughing every step of the way. And if you look at him the wrong way he’ll throw a whiskey bottle in your face. You best keep low and let him move on.
Then there’s Skip James, fanning the smoke from a blown tractor engine with his hat. He’s drenched in sweat, his face lined with weariness. A furnace of frustration burns in the pit of his stomach. His life is rife with failed relationships and shattered dreams. There’s no underlying smirk or wink in his blues. It’s an unmitigated storm of bitterness, billowing from a mind that rambles “like the wild geese from the west”.
But then think of a different scene. It’s a steamy day in the north Georgia countryside. A man and woman sit on a porch swing, perhaps after Sunday dinner. He plays gently on the guitar while her bare foot drags softly on the uneven boards. He sings about catching a train (“B and O Blues, No. 2”), about making his own escape. But it’s too late. Time has trapped them both. They stare out at rows of corn stalks standing limp in the heat. The road is now just a romantic dream. That’s Blind Willie McTell. Beneath his nimble playing and pleasant singing is a resignation, an acceptance that progress has overtaken us, that there is nowhere to run to, no more adventure to be had. The New World has become like the old one. It’s best to sing with fond remembrance, as we would recall a departed friend.
There are some boisterous moments on The Essential. McTell seems revved up by the presence of his long-time collaborator Curley Weaver on “Don’t Forget It” and “Honey It Must Be Love”. Hooking up with a prostitute was never as much fun as we hear on “Atlanta Strut”, where McTell’s guitar mimics, well, everything. The same can be said for “Georgia Rag”. And there’s a dose of conscience with “God Don’t Like It”, a duet with wife Kate McTell that warns us about hypocritical preachers. Perhaps most intense is Willie’s short instrumental version of “Amazing Grace”, where his slide captures the moaning and humming of both his parents, ” . . . when they picked the cotton and pulled corn”. Like Patton, Willie McTell wore many hats, but his artistry was never diminished in the least.
As a package, The Essential is a superb cross-section of McTell’s broad repertoire. Although the artwork and liner notes leave plenty to be desired, the music will keep the student of country blues captivated and challenged. “There is nothing new under the sun”, said the preacher, but McTell gives every old story a fresh and inventive spin.