In my weekly calendar combing, I noticed author Michael Gray popping up all over Atlanta, and I now see why: he wrote a new biography of Blind Willie McTell. More importantly, it’s the only full Blind Willie biography out there.
If you’re not into old bluesmen, you might still know this one as a Georgia native, as the namesake for the Virginia Highland club, Blind Willie’s, the fellow in the dedication on The White Stripes’ second album, “De Stijl,” or an entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Now that Gray’s book, “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell,” is out, here’s a nice story in Creative Loafing, “Retracing Blind Willie’s Blues,” and another from the AJC by Bob Townsend.
Alas, parts of Bob’s story didn’t make it online, and that’s no fun for anybody, so here you are — his interview with biographer Gray, other perspectives on Blind Willie and a list of events where you can meet the author.
All this info was reported and written by Bob T.:
From the author
Michael Gray, author of “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell, ” will be in Georgia for a series of book events. Gray recently called from his home in France to talk about researching and writing the biography. Here’s some of what he had to say.
On putting himself in the book: I’ve written a lot about music, but I’ve always tried to escape from the music book ghetto. Telling the story of getting the story makes for a good story. But it’s also, in itself, symptomatic of the fact that there was no attention paid at all to documenting the life of someone like McTell in his lifetime. Hunting down anything like an official document is extremely difficult. The detective story was a really valid part, I thought.
On first hearing McTell: Instead of a roaring voice full of utter misery, I was surprised to hear this almost Roy Orbison, sweet tenor voice, and this very optimistic music. Because he was from Georgia, and not Mississippi, I was really drawn to the mystery of him. That’s how it began.
On McTell’s charisma: He’s such an intelligent, resourceful guy. He just steers his way through appalling conditions brilliantly. He never complains about his blindness or his race. He’s real diplomatic, of course, because he has to be. But he’s also very adroit. My love of his music is one thing, but my fascination with a charismatic man in an interesting time and place is what made me want to write a book, rather than just listen to some records.
A Brit in Georgia: It may strike some people as presumptuous that a Brit is coming over to tell Georgians some of their own history, but that is what I’m doing and I don’t apologize for it.
Atlanta views: ‘He never got the kind of real, true respect that he should have’
David Fulmer, an Atlanta writer who made the documentary film “Blind Willie’s Blues, ” based his mystery novel “The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues, ” on McTell’s song of the same name:
“The reason I made the movie, and the reason I made him a character in the book, is that I think that within the blues pantheon, McTell really does stand out. But he never got the kind of real, true respect that he should have earned and should still have to this day. As a singer, as a writer and as a performer, there was no one like him. Like Bob Dylan said, ‘Nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell.’ He was a rare talent. He was first and foremost an entertainer. But when he got to do what he wanted to do, it was incredibly complex music, whether it was blues or gospel.”
Lance Ledbetter, founder of the Atlanta-based historic recordings label Dust-to-Digital, released the much lauded gospel music box-set compilation “Goodbye, Babylon, ” with a song by McTell:
“For ‘Goodbye, Babylon, ‘ I was constantly searching for the best versions of many gospel standards. Although Blind Willie McTell is known as one of the greatest blues musicians of all time, his version of ‘I Got to Cross the River of Jordan’ is unsurpassed. Recorded in an Atlanta hotel room on Nov. 5, 1940, the song displays McTell’s playful expressiveness as he lets his 12-string guitar finish many of the song’s verses for him. It is unfortunate that McTell died in 1959, just as the research and rediscovery of early blues artists was beginning.”
George Mitchell, Atlanta writer, photographer and blues researcher, went searching for McTell in 1963, and instead located and recorded Atlanta legends Peg Leg Howell and Buddy Moss:
“I decided I was going to try to find Blind Willie, and I started asking on the streets, in places where he would have played. Almost everybody would say they saw him a few weeks ago, and they could describe him. Of course, I found out later that he’d been dead for years. But he was alive in their minds. That would have been an experience to hear him. He’s one of my personal favorites, and, certainly, anybody would have to rate him near the top, right along with Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.”
Want to go? “Hand My My Travelin’ Shoes” author Michael Gray is doing a lot of traveling around Georgia in the next few weeks. Here’s a full schedule, and a few local stops:
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