Blind Willie McTell is certainly on my list of top ten Dylan favorites. He recorded the song during the Infidels sessions in the Spring of 1983. Surprisingly it did not make the final cut to be included on the album. Maybe because Dylan “borrowed” the chords and melody from St. James Infirmary he decided to relegate it to bootleg status.
Dylan first released it in 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased 1961-1991). Dylan plays piano and is accompanied only by Mark Knopfler on acoustic guitar. If anyone ever doubted Dylan was a great singer just listen to him sing this version of Blind Willie McTell. His voice bathed in some beautiful reverb oozes emotion.
In August 2021 Dylan released a 7” vinyl single featuring two previously unreleased versions of Blind Willie McTell. There are two full band versions with Dylan, Knopfler, Mick Taylor (former Rolling Stone), Sly Dunbar, and Robbie Shakespeare. Take Five was also released on the Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16.
First, let’s look at who Blind Willie McTell was.
McTell was born in Thomson, Georgia on May 5, 1898. Few facts are known about his early life. Even his name is uncertain: his family name was either McTear or McTier, and his first name may have been Willie, Samuel, or Eddie. His tombstone reads “Eddie McTier.” He was blind either from birth or early childhood, and he attended schools for the blind in Georgia, New York, and Michigan. While in his early teens, McTell learned to play the guitar from his mother, relatives, and neighbors in Statesboro, where his family had moved. In his teenage years, after his mother’s death, he left home and toured with carnivals and medicine shows. In the 1920s and 1930s, McTell traveled a circuit between Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah, and Macon. This region encompasses two major blues styles: Eastern Seaboard/Piedmont, with lighter, bouncier rhythms and a ragtime influence; and Deep South, with its greater emphasis on intense rhythms and short, repeated music phrases. Beginning with his first recording in 1927 for Victor Records and his 1928 recording session for Columbia, McTell produced such blues classics as “Statesboro Blues, “Mama ‘Tain’t Long ‘for’ Day,” and “Georgia Rag.” In 1929 he recorded “Broke Down Engine Blues.”
Like other musicians at the time, he recorded on different labels under various nicknames to skirt contractual agreements. Thus, he was Blind Willie for Vocalion, Georgia Bill for OKeh, Red Hot Willie Glaze for Bluebird, Blind Sammie for Columbia, Barrel House Sammy for Atlantic, and Pig ‘n’ Whistle Red for Regal Records.
In 1981 Blind Willie McTell was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame. In 1990 he was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Each year, the city of Thomson hosts the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival in honor of their hometown legend. (1)
McTell was an accomplished slide player and a tenor with a smooth voice. Despite his lack of commercial success, he was one of the few blues musicians of his generation who continued to actively play and record during the 1940s and 1950s. McTell influenced many artists, including the Allman Brothers Band, who covered his “Statesboro Blues“, Taj Mahal, Chris Smither, Jack White, and the White Stripes.
Ahmet Ertegun visited Atlanta in 1949 in search of blues artists for this new Atlantic Records label and after finding McTell playing on the street, arranged a recording session. Some of the songs were released on 78 but sold poorly. The complete session was released in 1972 as “Atlanta Twelve-String.” (2)
Dylan once called McTell the Van Gogh of country blues. (3)
Dylan recorded covers of McTell’s “Broke Down Engine” and “Delia” on his 1993 album, World Gone Wrong. Dylan’s song “Po’ Boy”, on Love and Theft (2001), contains the lyric “had to go to Florida dodging them Georgia laws”, which comes from McTell’s “Kill It Kid”.
Now back to the Dylan song.
Blind Willie McTell is “Dylan’s one indisputable masterpiece of the early eighties”. According to Clinton Heylin, a Dylan biographer.
I first heard Blind Willie McTell on Idiot’s Delight, the Vin Skelsa radio show. Southside Johnny was his guest and he played it solo acoustic live on-air. I happened to be recording the show that night, so I have a copy of it buried on cassette somewhere.
The first version that comes to mind is by The Band. They released it on their first non-Robbie Robertson release Jericho in 1993 with lead vocals shared by Rick Danko and Levon Helm. Danko would later do a solo version for Radio Woodstock Live Vol! 4 released in 2013.
In 2000 Iian Matthews, formerly of Fairport Convention, along with Long Island Music Hall of Fame inductee and Paris transplant Elliot Murphy, got together to make the album La Terre Commune (English-The Common Earth). On it, they cover “Blind Willie McTell. It features fine guitar work by Olivier Durand. Elliot also did a version on his 2001 live album recorded in Spain with The Rainy Season Last of the Rock Stars… And Me and You.
“Chappo” Roger Chapman is an English rock vocalist best known as a member of the progressive rock band Family, and also the rock, R&B band Streetwalkers. His idiosyncratic brand of showmanship when performing and vocal vibrato led him to become a cult figure on the British rock scene. Chapman is claimed to have said that he was trying to sing like both Little Richard and his idol Ray Charles. Chapman released a version on Opera House, Newcastle 2002.
In 2005 Garth and Maude Hudson released Live at the Wolf. Garth plays some beautiful piano on their version of “Blind Willie McTell”, but Maud recites the lyrics instead of singing them and takes all the power out of the song. I would recommend you skip this one. A better choice from this year is The Respatexans version from their LP Shine On. The album won The Spellemann Prize, an award given to Norwegian music artists who have distinguished themselves in a positive way in the previous year. This Norwegian country rock band adds some nice harmonies to the song while keeping its haunting feeling.
Barb Jungr is an English cabaret, jazz singer who in 2006 released her version on the Walking in the Sun album. Listen to that back-to-back with “St. James Infirmary” and you hear where Dylan took his chord progression from. She has covered several Dylan songs over the years. In 2002 she released Every Grain of Sand, a Dylan tribute record. In 2012 she revisits “Blind Willie McTell” on Durga Rising (An Indo-Jazz Adventure) an album she made with Russell Churney & Kuljit Bhamra. They slow it down doing a beautiful, mournful, passionate nine-minute rendition.
The Finnish group the Wentus Blues Band celebrated its 20th anniversary with a concert in Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Theater in the fall of 2006. The result was their Family Meeting album released the following year. There was also a documentary about the event. The concert featured many special guests including Mick Taylor who played on the original Infidels sessions. Together they performed “Blind Willie McTell”.
Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and sometimes Springsteen collaborator contributes an interesting version on Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs Of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years Of Amnesty International. Released in 2012, he avoids the trap that many of the cover versions fall prey to by presenting the song the same way Dylan did. He adds his own spin. He adds distorted guitars over a march-like beat ending with a driving solo. The reverb on his voice gives the song a haunting effect.
Francis Cabrel is one of the most influential French musicians having sold over 25 million albums. In 2012 he released his Dylan tribute album Vise Le Ciel Ou Bob Dylan Revisité. He included his hypnotic version of Blind Willie McTell
Singer-songwriter Tom Russell & R&B master Barrence Whitfield team up on their Hillbilly Voodoo album (2015) and present a really enjoyable version of “Blind Willie McTell”. This is one of my personal favorites. Russell & Whitfield trade the vocal behind a straightforward, driving backbeat. Danny Lewis’ organ and Andrew Hardin’s guitar work stand out in the arrangement. It manages to rock and keep the “feel” of the original.
Luigi Catuogno was born on the island of Capri off the coast of Italy and grew up listening to South American Creole music. He did an adaptation of Dylan’s songs for solo classical guitar. From this work the Dylan Suite concert was born, which he performed in 1999 and 2000 in Austria. He performed it again at the NoordNetherland Dylan Festival in 2012 and in Berlin at the Artenschuzten Theater in 2012. In 2017 he released a beautiful solo acoustic version of the Dylan Suite on his album The Neverending Strings. It includes a wonderful version of “Blind Willie McTell”.
German-born Bad Temper Joe was the only European finalist of the International Blues Challenge 2020 in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the winner of the 12th German Blues Challenge in 2022. On his 2017 release, Bad Temper Joe and His Band turns up the heat and do a rocking version of “Blind Willie McTell” that features some outstanding harmonica work.
For you jazz fans we have Jewels and Binoculars, a band from the Netherlands, featuring three Americans – Lindsey Horner on Bass, Michael Moore on sax and clarinet, and Michael Vatcher on drums. They have released three albums of Dylan’s music. Their 2007 release Ships with Tattooed Sails has a very interesting version of “Blind Willie McTell”.
For you, Bluegrass lovers there is The Barrell Jumpers version on their self-titled 2021 release.
Other versions worth a listen:
In 2001 Beth Scalet, a Kansas Music Hall of Fame inductee, did a wonderful blues version on her Dylan cover record Beth Love Bob-The Songs of Bob Dylan (2001).
Irish singer-songwriter George Murphy does a powerful version on his 2004 debut album Dreamed a Dream.
The Backyard Blues Connection does a full band version on their LP Don’t Let The Drinkin’ Do The Tinkin’ (2004). It features some nice guitar and organ work.
Another European version I like is by Swiss singer Polo Hofer. He covers it on his 2011 Dylan tribute record Polo Hofer Singt Bob Dylan.
Clas Yngstrom & Big Tex Three use the organ to drive their 2012 version for their tribute album to Bob, Mr. Bob’s Blue Devils.
The Paperhead does a very pretty, minimalist (acoustic guitar, acoustic slide & vocal) version on 2014’s Loans and Stones.
Bottle of Bread, which I believe is a Northern NJ band based on a Facebook search, open their album, Songs of Bob Dylan, with an excellent version (2015). I don’t know who the female vocalist is and there isn’t much information about the band. If anyone knows more about them, please email me.
Beth Bombara, a singer/songwriter from the mid-west who plays a mix of modern folk and electrified rock does one of my favorite versions on her album Map & No Direction (2017).
In 2019 the Girl From North Country (Original London Cast Recording) includes Scarecrow Hat’s version of “Blind Willie McTell”. It is a 2:20 stripped-down version with violin and dobro and is barely recognizable as the song. It is a haunting instrumental version. The Broadway cast version by The Marouthas is an equally haunting instrumental adaptation using piano and violin. This one comes in at 1:18 but is more recognizable as “Blind Willie McTell”. This one came out in 2021.
More recent versions include Chrissie Hynde’s piano-driven version of her 2021 Dylan Tribute record Standing in the Doorway.
Another nice version that year is by Singer-songwriter Dylan LeBlanc on Pastimes.
On Lucinda Williams’ 2021 release Bob’s Back Pages: A Night Of Bob Dylan Songs she includes Blind Willie McTell.
I only touched on some of the 45 versions I’m aware of. Most stay true to Dylan’s approach. As always, I welcome your comments, opinions, and corrections. Tell me what version you like best by emailing us at uncoveringdylan.com. Please subscribe to our blog and tell the other Dylan fans you know about us.
Here is a link to a Spotify playlist featuring many of the tracks I’ve featured in this Blog. https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7kn8gx51EynDgobEOSgzRp?si=d8ce918254214ff3
Here are some live versions from YouTube:
“Chappo” Roger Chapman version at Opera House, Newcastle 2002
Mick Taylor at Rockpalast Germany 2009
The Band Puistoblues 1996.
Allman Brothers Band – Beacon Theater 10/27/14