Meet the author
Michael Gray will be at Decatur CD at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 9. Free. 356 W. Ponce De Leon Avenue, Decatur, 404-371-9090. Also the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library, 7 p.m. on Oct. 14. Free. 1 Margaret Mitchell Square N.W., Atlanta, 404-730-1700, www.af.public.lib.ga.us
By Bob Townsend
Undoubtedly, one the greatest blues artists of all time, Georgia native and longtime Atlanta denizen Blind Willie McTell died more than 50 years ago, on Aug. 19, 1959, in the state hospital in Milledgeville.
McTell’s music became a part of American popular culture in the early ’70s, mostly because it was covered by rock and blues bands, like the Allman Brothers — who had a hit with McTell’s 1928 classic, “Statesboro Blues.” Guitarists such as Duane Allman marveled at McTell’s singular 12-string guitar wizardry. And singer-songwriters, including Bob Dylan, paid homage to McTell’s gifts as a performer.
Now, in the new book, “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell” (Chicago Review Press, $26.95), British music journalist and travel writer, Michael Gray, offers a compelling account of McTell’s life and times.
Taking after the field work of University of Memphis professor and musicologist David Evans and his family, Gray traveled throughout the state between 1998 and 2005 to expand on McTell’s biography and elucidate facts about his birth and death. And through genealogical research, Gray was able to create a McTell family tree.
In examining McTell’s ancestry, Gray establishes a link between the black McTells and the white McTiers in Georgia through McTell’s white great-grandfather, who served in the Confederate army. Gray also finds that McTell was born not in 1898 or 1901 as previously believed, but in 1903. And through hospital records, the book details the treatment McTell received in the last week of his life, and reveals the building in Milledgeville where he died.
Part travelogue, part detective story, Gray makes himself a major part of the story — sometimes peevishly commenting on the vagaries of his journeys to the places of McTell’s rural roots, in Statesboro and Thomson, other times wryly observing the delights and foibles of informants, and occasionally running into trouble with the authorities.
Gray also spends a lot of time putting McTell in the broadest possible historical context. That zealous approach ranges over discussions of race, class, and Southern culture, including an account of the infamous Statesboro lynchings, and even sundry pages of Civil War battle action.
But when the book gets to McTell’s time in Atlanta, where he moved in 1927, it celebrates the stuff that made him a legend.
That was a period when the city was a recording capitol for Southern music. And McTell made records every year from 1927 to 1936 — except 1934 — always with major labels, including Victor, Columbia, Vocalion and Decca.
Those sides, along with some later recordings, showcase a conscious artist who could play the blues, as well as gospel music, with a masterfully light, jaunty touch on guitar and a richly evocative vocal style.
That McTell was blind, probably from birth, was scarcely a handicap, it seems. Legends abound about how he traveled from the country to New York and Chicago, and could guide visitors around the streets of Atlanta.
The real accomplishment of “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes,” though, is in having all of this material in one place. And, remarkably, it stands as the first full biography of Blind Willie McTell.