Historyof Blind Willie McTell and the Blues Festival
Blind Willie McTell
The citizens of Thomson, Georgia, maintain an unusually acute awareness of Blues music and its legacy. As home to influential Bluesman Blind Willie McTell, Thomson celebrates its association with one of America’s most influential musicians annually at the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival, promoted by the Activities Council of Thomson (ACT).
Born William Samuel McTell in 1901, Blind Willie lost his sight in late childhood, yet earned the status as one of the most accomplished guitarists and lyrical storytellers in Blues history.
Blind Willie became an accomplished musical theorist, able to both read and write music in Braille, through an encouraging family and strong faith.
While few of his recordings ever earned mainstream popularity, his influence on the modern music and art scene is widely known. His songs (Statesboro Blues, Broke Down Engine Blues, etc…) have been recorded by famous artists such as the Allman Brothers, Taj Mahal and others.
He left the music scene for the pulpit in later life and the details of Blind Willie’s death remain nebulous; nonetheless, his legacy grows exponentially each year.
You have to maintain a certain tolerance for ambiguity to understand how a disabled African American from central Georgia in the early part of the 20th century could inspire the likes of the most successful and influential Blues, Jazz and Rock musicians of our time.
While accomplished and appreciated in his day, Blind Willie was never truly successful by today’s standards. His real claim to success has been realized in his gift to future generations. In his lifetime, overcoming physical and social adversity was part of the program.
The American Dream realized too late?
Not in this case. Blind Willie’s influence continues to affect music lovers and concert goers regularly; however, through the fundraising and outreach efforts of ACT, it will continue to educate and influence others about the true American art form.
Broken Down Engine
“Broke Down Engine”
The Definitive Blind Willie McTell.
©1994 Sony Music Entertainment
Southern Can Is Mine
“Southern Can Is Mine”
Legends of the Blues – Vol. 1.
©1991 Sony Music Entertainment
More on Willie
Another biography can be found on Blues Net.
Listen to the Allman’s Brothers’ version of Statesboro_Blues, which they recorded in 1969.
Read and hear Bob Dylan’s tribute to Willie, “Blind Willie McTell.” Here’s a verse:
Seen the arrow on the door post saying “This land is condemned”
All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem.
I traveled through East Texas where many martyrs fell
And I know one thing, nobody can sing them blues like Blind Willie McTell.
In his Brief History of the Blues, Robert M. Baker writes: “Blues lyrics contain some of the most fantastically penetrating autobiographical and revealing statements in the Western musical tradition.”
Willie’s lyrics were no exception. They penetrated. They revealed. Desire. Desertion. Loneliness. Tenderness. Pain. Betrayal. Unrequited love. Hunger. Homesickness. Heartache.
Willie McTell is buried at the Jonesgrove Baptist Church in Thomson. Find directions to the site here.