Expecting Rain

Go to main page
It is currently Mon December 18th, 2017, 09:05 GMT

All times are UTC




Post new topic Reply to topic  [ 36 posts ]  Go to page 1, 2  Next
Author Message
PostPosted: Sat July 30th, 2011, 02:50 GMT 

Joined: Wed April 11th, 2007, 04:15 GMT
Posts: 1496
Location: City of Angels
Possibly the greatest song to be cut from a Dylan album...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45to9ZEK0x8

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
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 no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard that hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell




The Power Station studio is hushed; there is a barely audible footfall, then Dylan strikes a single piano key. It is a quiet but stark call to musical order. Mark Knopfler softly, exquisitely picks an acoustic guitar in the background, then joins in; Bob Dylan hits a quick pair of somber E- flat minor chords, sketches two measures of melody, and begins to sing, wearily: “Seen the arrow on the door po-ost, sayin’ this land is condemned.” Twenty years after “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” he has written another of his many songs that traverse appalling sights and sounds. Almost right away, it is obvious that the melody of “Blind Willie McTell” comes from “St. James Infirmary”—the same melody that dominates Blind Willie McTell’s own “The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”—with possibly just a touch of Frédéric Chopin’s Marche Funèbre.

The arrow on the doorpost that the singer sees when the song begins is a sign. It might protect the home inside, much as doorway signs of lamb’s blood protected the enslaved Israelites in the Passover story. It might mark the household as righteous and observant, like the Jewish mezuzah, affixed to the doorposts of the pious in accord with the holy injunctions in Deuteronomy. But it certainly signifies that the land as a whole is condemned. Which land? “All the way from New Or- leeans to Je- ru- sa- lem,” Dylan sings. The land where blacks were enslaved; the land where the Israelites ruled only to be cast out and oppressed, and where Herod, in trying to kill the Christ child, massacred the innocents: these lands and all the lands between them, the whole world over, are damned.

The singer suddenly tells of traveling through East Texas—home to Blind Lemon Jefferson, though not to McTell—“where many martyrs fell.” The martyrs could be, as the word normally connotes, holy victims, or they could be broken slaves and lynched freedmen, or even Confederate and Union soldiers, or soldiers from the war against Mexico, or the fallen fighters at the Alamo. Or they might include John F. Kennedy. Or they could be all of these. And what does the singer know from these sights and travels? That “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

The next verse thrusts us into Willie McTell’s world. The singer recalls hearing a hoot owl singing late at night, after some sort of show had ended and the tents were being struck and folded. (They could be revival show tents or medicine show circus tents; McTell had connections to both.) Yet even though the singer heard the owl—symbol of wisdom and victory in ancient Greece, although in other cultures a symbol of bad luck and evil—nobody else did; the owl’s only audience was the stars above the barren trees. By contrast, one can only imagine that an enthusiastic crowd cheered the charcoal gypsy maidens, strutting their feathers, whom the singer recalls next. It seems that the tent show was a lusty one, with swaggering black chorus girls who might have stepped out of “The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”—although Dylan himself had performed with his own soulful black maidens, who were also, at various times, his lovers. In the American South, the lines between one kind of show and the other—Holy Rollers and hoochie-coochie—had always been blurry; indeed, one sometimes followed the other on the same night. But no matter because, finally, Dylan sings, “ No-bu-dee can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

Now sunk in deepest Dixie, the song moves backward in time, not forward through space, and the singer doesn’t just relate what he finds, but calmly bids us to look for ourselves:

See them big plantations burnin’
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia bloomin’
See the ghosts- uuuuuuuuuvv slavery ships.

From the Civil War and slavery’s Armageddon back to slavery times, cruelty cracked while lush beauty bloomed, and in back of it all stood the shades of the deathly Middle Passage. Suddenly, though, time has slipped again: these are ghosts, not the ships or slaves themselves, and the singer tells of how he can still “hear them tribes a- moanin’” and hear the undertaker’s bell ringing. The moaning tribes are the tribes of Africans being sold into slavery, but they could also be the moaning Africans of today, or the ancient enslaved tribes of Israel, or any suffering tribe you choose, at any time you choose. And though the undertaker’s bell tolled all over the slave South, that bell has tolled forever, and it tolls for everyone. And still—still—the singer repeats, “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

Now the song flashes on other southern scenes, and Dylan’s voice rises in revulsion. A woman, who seems to know exactly what’s up, is down by the riverside with a fine young man, dressed to the nines, who is carrying a bottle of bootleg whiskey. (The song does not say whether they are black or white, because they could be either.) Up on the highway, a convict chain-gang toils and sweats. The singer can hear rebel yells. And now he knows no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. An instrumental break sets off the singer’s tale of his journey from his final reflections. Atop Knopfler’s strums and liquid licks, Dylan plays a jumpy piano, banging out the chorus with doubled- up, backbeat chords.

Then he sings: “Well, God is in His heaven /And we all want what’s His.” As performed on the session tape, the lines echo the famous conclusion of the poet Robert Browning’s “Pippa’s Song”—“God’s in His heaven— /All’s right with the world!”—by which Browning really meant that despite all of the evil and vicious injustice in the world, it is still possible to have faith in God. But as rendered in Dylan’s official book of lyrics—“Well God is in heaven”—the lines echo the Bible and convey a darker message. “God is in heaven, and thou upon earth,” reads Ecclesiastes 5:2. Dylan’s revision of the second line describes a yearning for life everlasting—but also humankind’s blasphemous disregard for the separation of heaven and earth. Continuing in a biblical vein, the song explains that in this world, all is vanity, and “power and greed and corruptible seed / seem to be all that there is.” And there is still another possibility, just as close to Dylan’s preoccupations and the historical themes of “Blind Willie McTell”: “But God is in Heaven, and Grant in the Town, / And Right through might is Law— / God’s way adore,” Herman Melville wrote in one of his poems in Battle- Pieces, describing the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, and the conclusion of the Civil War. The singer has seen, heard, and smelled unspeakable things, in the past and in the present. He reports no redress and no redemption, even in Jesus Christ; the only sign he sees of the Lord’s true and righteous judgment is an arrow marking condemnation of a heedless world riddled with greed, corruption, and the lust for power. And with that the singer concludes, gazing out a hotel window, his voice rising again, as if to give himself and his listeners something to hold on to, proclaiming one last time the one thing that he really knows, that “ no one can sing the blu- oo-ues like Blind Will-ah-ee McTe-uhl.” All he has left is the song and its singer.

From Sean Wilentz'
Bob Dylan In America

It's a song that has only grown wiser and more weary as its matured with its author.
Bob once said about Blind Willie:
"I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn't have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It's like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso - goin' to his house and lookin' at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are 'Picasso fans.'

I saw him perform an extraordinary rendition in Pittsburgh last year and it sent me on a chase for an even better go at the song from the past few years.
After much searching,I found this bad-ass (I miss Denny!):

Trento Italy
June 15 2008
http://www.sendspace.com/file/ph3ww1

I know it's been spoken of often around these parts but please let us know on Track Talk what your true feelings are for this beauty...
I want to hear from all of you!
And definitely post some favorite versions y'all!!!!


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sat July 30th, 2011, 03:10 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Fri August 27th, 2010, 03:17 GMT
Posts: 488
Location: The Captain's Tower
For all the blathering I hear about the electric outtake, the officially released version will never be beaten. It's one of the creepiest, most quietly powerful recordings ever. It's hair raising stuff. Sonically, with its stark piano and guitar, it's his most vividly unsettling song along with "Man in the Long Black Coat."

Live versions fall falt for me, but I did enjoy Wembley 2000 greatly, mostly due to his animated phrasing.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sat July 30th, 2011, 06:57 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Wed November 24th, 2010, 15:41 GMT
Posts: 999
I've always preferred the BS1 version over any live versions.

It's a nice song. Blind Willie McTell is a pretty cool guy.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sat July 30th, 2011, 07:01 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Wed August 11th, 2010, 18:52 GMT
Posts: 286
It's a kinda creepy song. I tend to skip it when I'm not really well, it would hit me too hard. There is something very intense about it, very very intense...
The beginning makes me break out in goosepimples.
I like the song a lot but it took some time before I got used to it. At first it just freaked me out, I couldn't really listen to it at all, it was too big for me, too great. I was always rather frightened by the song... it's haunting. And beautiful.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sat July 30th, 2011, 17:00 GMT 

Joined: Thu December 9th, 2004, 16:38 GMT
Posts: 1539
Location: Canadee-i-o
What can you say? One of his greatest songs, ever.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sat July 30th, 2011, 18:01 GMT 

Joined: Sat August 16th, 2008, 21:48 GMT
Posts: 2871
Location: Connecticut
Yes indeed incredible ! I do love many many live versions, but of course I'm partial to live anyhow esp 95-05 (listen to live much more often than studio, but like that with many bands & artists); lot's of great ones imo. thanks for the post marker! MEZ


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sun July 31st, 2011, 09:38 GMT 

Joined: Wed June 1st, 2011, 16:12 GMT
Posts: 273
Location: Deep in the heart of nowhere
Indeed, one of his greatest ever and the official acoustic version is my preferred version against the electric out-take or any live version I've heard so far. As far as live versions go, I see the version that made into the "ER top 100 performances" was from London 2003, so presumably that's the preferred version of many here- I prefer the performances from Wolftrap in Aug 97 (listed in the A-Z)- both performances are good, but I marginally prefer the second, from the 24th.

Incidentally, going back to the acoustic version, Clinton Heylin makes the suggestion in "Still On The Road" that the acoustic guitar was not played by Mark Knopfler on the grounds that "he had been fired" and that it was therefore more likely to be Mick Taylor playing. To my ears it sounds like Knopfler's style- what do people think? Heylin drawing unwarranted conclusions?


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sun July 31st, 2011, 13:39 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Wed July 30th, 2008, 10:28 GMT
Posts: 1565
The released version blows the rather pedestrian electric version out of the water. Live versions are mostly very tame as well, at least the ones I have heard. The one on BS 1-3 is one of Dylan's best recorded performances. Period.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Mon August 1st, 2011, 08:48 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Tue August 9th, 2005, 20:52 GMT
Posts: 416
One of his very best lyrics, and a brilliant recreation of St. James Infirmary. It's one of those songs where knowing the original track enriches Dylan's rewrite, so here is a Louis Armstrong version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzcpUdBw7gs

My reappreciation of Dylan started with this track - I'd bought the Bootleg Series for the 60s stuff, but Blind Willie McTell blew me away, not only as a great song but also as evidence that Dylan could still write powerful lyrics.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Tue August 2nd, 2011, 02:11 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Wed March 30th, 2011, 20:03 GMT
Posts: 379
Great song. A friend of mine tried introducing his girlfriend to Dylan, played her everything and nothing clicked, until he played her the piano version of this song from the bootleg series. Then she understood.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Tue August 2nd, 2011, 02:43 GMT 

Joined: Mon May 10th, 2010, 19:30 GMT
Posts: 1802
Location: New York
Great Post!

For me it's one of his songs live that get better and better as he ages...just like Senor.
Loved the 2010 versions.... Perfect song.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Wed August 10th, 2011, 19:46 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Mon May 29th, 2006, 14:41 GMT
Posts: 4913
Location: In the middle
I agree about the BS1-3 acoustic take being the best but Dylan's voice isn't up front, where it should be.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Wed August 10th, 2011, 22:27 GMT 
Promethium Member
User avatar

Joined: Thu January 24th, 2008, 15:14 GMT
Posts: 17949
Location: Where the swift don't win the race
The live shows with Larry on bazouki were incredibly well done. The studio recordings are not bad but they're not my favorites...

There is a Spring 2004 show (Chicago, March 7?) where the interplay between Larry's cittern and Freddy's Strat is just jaw drop amazing. I'm sorry to say its unlikely we'll ever hear anything that wonderful again... at least, not in this life.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sun October 9th, 2011, 06:01 GMT 
Titanium Member

Joined: Sun January 4th, 2009, 23:46 GMT
Posts: 5223
BLIND WILLIE McTELL

John Bauldie

No song has caused greater consternation among Dylan enthusiasts than this one. It is a masterpiece, a great, great song, brilliantly performed – and Dylan chose to leave it off the LP. Why? He has been asked the question at least twice and he has answered it twice, the first time explaining to Kurt Loder that he “didn’t think he recorded it right’, and more recently telling Adrian Deevoy, “It just never came out for me. It never got developed in any way that it should have really.”

Blind Willie McTell has Dylan as the great blues singer he has always suggested that he might become, given the time. But in the world in which he finds himself singing the blues, he doubts his adequacy and conjures up the ghost of the great Willie McTell, a sweet-voiced blues singer who might have offered appropriate lamentation were he not long dead. Meantime, Dylan must offer his own lamentation, bewailing not just the damnation of the world, and not just his own inability to offer an appropriate response to its imminent passing, but bewailing also the fact that there seems to be no one who can appropriately mourn that passing – no Robert Johnson, no Blind Lemon Jerrerson, no Leadbelly, no Blind Willie McTell, the ghosts of whom have long haunted the darker side of his street.

It is both the lack of a singer and the knowledge thereof that are being lamented in the song, as well as the knowledge of the state of the world – “Power and greed and corruptible seed / Seem to be all that there is”. In former times, the oppression of such knowledge might have been addressed and relieved by the blues singer. Now there is no one who can sing the blues appropriately. The profound irony, however, of Blind Willie McTell – an irony which is compounded by Dylan’s continued diffidence and apologetic insistence that he “didn’t record it right”, or that “it never came out”. In attempting to express feelings of his own inadequacy as a blues singer and in confessing the oppression of his knowledge, Dylan sings the blues indeed, a soul-rending blues that puts him on a par with any of the old bluesmen – Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson included.

Nigel Williamson

Willie McTell was born in 1901 and lived all his life in Georgia. Blind from birth, his mother taught him to play guitar before he ran away from home in 1914 to play in medicine shows and on street corners. The acknowledged master of the 12-string guitar, he sang in a warmer vocal style than many of the Delta bluesmen and made his first recordings in 1927. He was recorded by John Lomax in Atlanta in 1940 but had drifted into onscurity by the time of his death in 1959. That same year, Sam Charters kicked off the American folk-blues revival with an influential book and record called The Country Blues. It featured McTell’s 1929 classic, Statesboro Blues, which is probably how an 18-year-old Dylan first came to hear him.

Almost a quarter of a century after McTell’s death, Dylan not only eulogised the great bluesman in the song that bears his name, but paid tribute to the entire heritage of African-American music, conjuring up a deep, dark and resonant dreamscape of the old south populated by sweet magnolias blooming, plantations burning, chain gangs on the highway and ghostly slave ships.

The song was recorded for Infidels and its non-inclusion on that album is another of the perplexing decisions that characterised Dylan’s career during the 1980s. He has since claimed he did not think it was recorded “right” and “it never got developed in any way that it should have”. Most fans beg to differ. When the track finally appeared on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 9in 1991, one of his most vivid and heart-felt performances was revealed, with a soul-rended vocal that puts Dylan himself up there in the pantheon of the grear blues singers.

Paul Williams

Between 11 April 1983 and 8 May 1983, Dylan recorded at Power Station Studios in New York (with Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler as his co-producer). Later, Dylan came back by himself and remixed or rerecorded some of the songs. This process was completed in early July. The album Dylan put together from these sessions, Infidels, contains some very good and some very bad performances side by side. The album title is suggestive and ambiguous in the best Dylan tradition; I hear it as a comment on the unholiness and corruption of the world. In the end, some of the better songs and performances from the sessions were left off of the album, including an unmistakable masterpiece, one of the true high points of Dylan's astonishing career as composer and performer, Blind Willie McTell.

Blind Willie McTell is a song about seeing. Dylan sees some¬thing – a vision, if you will, of America, of the history of black Americans and the American south – and communicates what he sees through his voice. This seeing is done not with the eyes but with the heart. It is a form of perception that includes hearing (hoot owl, tribes a-moaning, undertaker's bell – notice how "visual" these auditory images are) and seeing and smelling and also an information source not sensory but simply felt within, monstrously and unerringly, communicated by the verb "seem": "Power and greed and corruptible seed / seem to be all that there is." The window Dylan says he is gazing out of is, certainly, a real window – the song is exquisitely concrete from start to finish, you can see, hear and smell everything – but (as is the case when we gaze out windows) it is also, and in a truer sense, the window of memory, of awareness, of feeling, where everything one has ever heard and sensed in relation to some particular subject is suddenly conjured up in a moment of pure feeling, like Proust's sweetcake epiphany.

Dylan glances out the window and sees this historical tableau, as though he were sitting in Minnesota's fabulous old St James Hotel (a real place, although the hotel's name also acknowledges the source of the song's melody, for this is Dylan's loving tribute to and jazz improvisation on St James Infirmary), gazing with some third or fifth eye all the way down the Mississippi River to the historical vista that lay at the other end decades and centuries – time and space both telescoped – ago. Sees it, feels it, and cries out in pain and despair and a kind of joy which is the liberation inherent in the blues, the liberation of being able to express and release the "oppression of knowledge" (as John Bauldie calls it), a declaration of freedom and personal power. Blind Willie McTell is, not paradoxically, one of the saddest and most uplifting songs this listener has ever heard.

It is a painting. It is the painting Dylan has wanted to paint all his life, his "tall oak tree," his "picture of what goes on around here sometimes," his "painting where you can see the different parts but then you also see the whole of it." It is in a real sense the culmina¬tion of his artistic aspirations, and I do not find it surprising that he hesitated (in 1983, and for years afterward, until the release of the piano / guitar version of Blind Willie McTell on The Bootleg Series in 1991) to cast this particular pearl before the swine who had for so long howled at him from the critics' gallery and, sadly, from the audience's pit as well. Of course he expected us to love the song. And he also knew, from bitter experience over the past decade or more, that we would most probably ignore it, or damn it with faint praise. In such a circumstance the pride of the artist, and his vulnerable love for what he's created, urge him towards silence.

But only after the fact. First there is the need to express, and the inspiration (both at once; how could we ever say which comes first?), and the resultant expression of need is the key to the mystery of the performing artist, because while Blind Willie McTell is a stunningly brilliant composition that we could analyze needlessly and ecstatically for hours, the heart of this masterpiece is its performance. All the effort of composition is mere preparation for this moment. This is the antithesis of silence. This is that human act so linked with and perhaps even more courageous than seeing; this is the holiness that Dylan perceives in the old blues singer, and by extension perhaps in all of humanity, though we most of us or all of us fall short; this is speaking.

And what speaks in Blind Willie McTell (The Bootleg Series version), what arises out of and caresses and calls attention to and finally separates itself from the silence, is the piano. Dylan's voice follows. The beauty and expressiveness of his voice send shivers through us, immediately and repeatedly, every time we listen; he is so present it scares us, and yet this presence is so sweet we cannot pull ourselves away. This is his following. The piano is guiding him across a vast and mighty landscape, the land of his vision, full of images and sounds and smells, and his voice follows, bringing words and tune and the deep keening of his heart along with it. Every phrase is a voyage, filled with awareness and need and life. And finally the voice stops, and the piano continues (ably sup¬ported throughout by Knopfler's understated guitar accompani¬ment), allowing and requiring the listener to gaze out of (and into) the window of his or her own heart.

Mojo 2005 Reader’s Poll #8

Fragile and bruised, this is Dylan at his most vulnerable.

Martin Carthy – Mojo 100 Greatest Dylan Songs #5

It blows this massive hole through the romantic notion of the south. It is about corruptability, and it has an amazing emotional impact, which counts for everything. When he sang A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in The Troubadour in London in 1962, the audience was x thunderstruck – they had never heard anything like that in their lives. To take a songwriting idea like you find in Nottamun Town – a “song of life” in the folk lingo – and to develop it like he did in A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall was absolutely awe inspiring. I was absolutely stunned, and Blind Willie McTell had the same effect on me. It is everything a song should be – it is concise, it is eloquent and it also happens to be a beautiful piece of music. I love the position of the narrator in the song – sitting in a New Orleans hotel room contemplating the whole history of the south, the murder amid the magnolias, but not with anger for a change. It is a rumination – a great word for a great song.

Mike Marqusee

Another, far more remarkable song recorded at those 1983 ses¬sions and not released was Blind Willie McTell. This is less a tribute to the sweet-toned minstrel who composed Statesboro Blues as an invocation of the historical experience behind the blues as a whole¬and a meditation on its meaning in our times. It is also a testament to the enduring importance of African-American struggle and song in Dylan's inner landscape. In a series of images both compact and multi¬dimensional, Dylan takes us on a journey through history: slavery ships, plantations burning, chain gangs yelling, "charcoal gypsy maid¬ens" who "can strut their feathers well," the poverty-stricken 1920s beau with "bootleg whiskey in his hand:" In the final verse, Dylan muses bleakly:

Well, God is in heaven And we all want what's his
But power and greed and corruptible seed Seem to be all that there is

Blind Willie McTell is at once monumental and fragile. It is a sum¬mation of Dylan's relationship to a tradition that lay behind his entire career. It also suggests that the only mission left for the artist is to sing the blues – to bear witness to the tragedy of the times.

Michael Gray

For all his efforts, and the extraordinary quality of his talent, Blind Willie McTell's career was doomed. His return to recording in 1949 and 1959, for Atlantic and then for the small Regal label, were his first commercial sessions since his prewar recording career had petered out with a short, unhappy session in 1936 from which nothing had been released (and from which nothing survives). These postwar recordings produced a last small set of 78 rpm releases, but no success or revival of his reputation as an artist. By this time he was 50-something, and to the extent that he was known at all, it was as an old Atlanta street musician.

McTell does not seem to have become embittered, though he drank, at times heavily, and suffered health problems. Though he still had family and friends in the places he traveled between, many of his friends were dead. Perhaps everything seemed to have come to nothing.

This may explain why McTell, like Dylan, became in his middle years a convert to Christianity, at first so keenly that he experimented with the process of preaching (as Dylan did onstage in the concerts of 1979 and 1980). McTell gave a trial sermon at Mount Zion Baptist Church on Piedmont Avenue in Atlanta, where he was a member and often played and sang on Sundays, and went so far as to get a license to preach.

He was also a member of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Statesboro, performing here too - sometimes accompanying gospel quartets – and getting paid from the collection. At the radio station where he cut his 1949 sides for Atlantic Records, WGST in Atlanta, he sang spirituals on the air in the early 1950s, as he did for Radio WERD (then called WEAS) in the Decatur section of town.

His country gospel sides can delight: Pearly Gates (Atlantic), Hide Me In Thy Bosom and the second take of Sending Up My Timber (Regal) make a thrilling trio. McTell was alive with conviction for these performances, whereas the blues sides he was obliged to give Atlantic, and those he threw in for Regal too, tend to be tired reworkings of his old material. Similarly, of Course, Dylan's "all-Christian" tour of 1979 showed remarkably fired-up, while his newfound conviction inspired an explosion of songwriting more prolific than any since the mid-1960s.

McTell's great Hide Me In Thy Bosom sounds recorded behind fiber¬glass, yet at 52 he can still make you think of Presley's That's All Right, his fluid vocal rides and swoops with such unloosed passion. There is also a particular, inspired piece of singing, early on in the track, that one can imagine Dylan coming up with. On repeats of the line later in the song McTell is content with the conventional "feed me, feed me, feed me;" which follows the rhythm and gets its excitement from sheer insistent rep¬etition, but the first time around he hits instead a long, sustained, utterly unpredictable "feeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed me," cutting across the rhythm and holding a note between the expected two. Dylan has done much the same in concert with the chorus of Knockin' on Heaven's Door, turning "knock knock knocking" into "kno-ckin'," and you can imagine him doing the same in the course of a live performance of something from Slow Train Coming or Saved.

The themes they share at this point in their lives are evangelically Christian. Sending Up My Timber states the Are You Ready? theme, performed with the same crusading spirit as the Saved sessions generally:

It may be morn or night or noon
But I do now know just how soon

while McTell's Library of Congress session gives us a reminiscence about "those old-fashioned hymns" his parents used to sing around the house before going out to work in the fields, one of which carried the same message:

Are you just well to get ready? You got to die, you got to die
Just well to get ready, you got to die
It may be tomorrow, you can't tell the minute or the hour
just well to get ready, you got to die, you got to die.

Most interesting here is the switch from the righteous "you" in "Just as Well Get Ready, You Got to Die" to the affecting "I," in "I Got to Cross the River Jordan":

I got to face my dear Saviour,
I got to face Him for myself
There's nobody here can face Him for me
So I got to face Him

And I got to work out my soul salvation ...
There's nobody here can work it out for me ...

I got to lie in some old lonesome graveyard
I've got to lie there by myself
There's nobody there can lie there for me
Lord, I got to lie therefor myself.

McTell sings this without melodrama, with great simplicity, such that we feel his faith to be a struggle: a summoning of courage a hairsbreadth from the bereft. It clinches the case of Blind Willie McTell's ability to lament for us – to be the artist on to whose shoulders Bob Dylan can place the weight of his visionary requiem for America's past and everybody's future.

So does The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues: This is Blind Willie McTell's personalized version, one among a whole sequence of songs, based on the traditional English ballad The Unfortunate Rake and which also becomes the black standard St. James Infirmary. The Unfortunate Rake, St. James Infirmary and The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues all end up wondrously transmuted into Blind Willie McTell:

This is the 19th-century broadside version of The Unfortunate Rake, as sung by the distinguished British folk singer and folklorist A. L. Lloyd:

As I was a-walking down by St. James' Hospital
I was a-walking down by there one day
What should I spy but one of my comrades
All wrapped up in flannel though warm was the day

I asked him what ailed him, I asked him what failed him
I asked him the cause of all his complaint
"It's all on account of some handsome young woman
'Tis she that has caused me to weep and lament

”And had she but told me before she disordered me
Had she but told me of it in time
I might have got pills and salts of white mercury
But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime

"Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin
Six young girls to sing me a song
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along. . ."

"Don't muffle your drums and play your fifes merrily
Play a quick march as you carry me along
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin
Saying: There goes an unfortunate lad to his home.”

The last verse becomes, in other versions, a chorus repeated between each verse, and its instructions about the fife, drum and march are more usually these, as in the version "The Trooper Cut Down in His Prime" sung by Ewan MacColl:

Then beat the drum slowly and play your fife lowly
And sound the Dead March as yon carry me along. . .

(Bob Dylan quotes from this in his Oh Mercy song Where Teardrops Fall:

We've hanged the drum slowly and played the fife lowly
You know the song in my heart

so neatly suggesting that the song in his heart is the Dead March, and then, with a faith akin to McTell's in I Got To Cross the River Jordan, looking beyond death in hope of resurrection:
In the turning of twilight, in the shadows of rnoonlight
You can show me a new place to start).

The first extant text of The Unfortunate Rake was not published until 1909, though it dates from 1848, when it was written down in County Cork from the performance of someone who had learned it in Dublin in 1790. That is one account, anyway; another says that "The earliest text seems to be the 18th-century Buck's Elegy, set in Covent Garden:'* Either way, it was by oral transmission that this 200-plus-year-old song traveled around Britain and Ireland and to America, where it split into white versions and black.

By the time Alan Lomax was listening to the Hemphills' fife and drum music in Mississippi, and Blind Willie McTell was singing an early version of The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues to L.omax's father in a hotel room in Georgia in 1940, St. James Infirmary had become a standard of sorts, combining its own version of The Unfortunate Rake and of that New Orleans post-funeral music. The classic Dixieland version of the song is by Jack Teagarden, from 1941, but such renditions had been popular through most of the 1920s and 1930s: so much so that there was a long period dur¬ing which, just as all early 1960s British beat-groups had to know Got My Mojo Working (we all wondered what a mojo was, but did not like to ask), so it was more or less obligatory for American jazz bands, black and white, to know St. James Infirmary.

Blind Willie McTell himself sings it, alongside The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues, during his 1956 "Last Session:" His performance languishes among the unissued items.

What all these songs do is allow some articulation of a fundamental human problem: how to face death. The use of two narrators allows an interplay, or balancing, between different strategies. In the early versions, the dying hero or heroine is often preoccupied with a sense of shame or unworthiness, while the person who comes upon them is confronting imminent loss, the impermanence of comradeship, the responsibility of bearing witness to death. The later versions mediate between these feelings of tenderness, sorrow and grief for another, and the dying person's own need to banish the fear of death by making light of it. This duality is espe-cially heightened in Blind Willie McTell's The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues, which begins with that long and attentive spoken account of caring for the dying friend, of the daily care over a period of weeks, the ambulance ride, the father on hand, the sorting out of practicalities-followed by the reduc¬tive mythologizing of those practicalities by the careless victim ("Let a deck of card be my tombstone". . . "Life been a doggone curse"), and culminates in the first narrator's Submission to the second's show of indifference:

Throw my buddy Jesse in the hoodoo wagon
Come here mama with that can of booze
With the Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues

This is a very similar ending to the conventional one for St. James Infir¬mary:

Well now you've heard my story
Have another shot of booze
And if anyone should happen to ask you
I got the St. James Infirmary Blues

What St. James Infirmary ditterent is that it almost has three nar¬rators. That is, the first narrator meets not a dying second narrator but a healthy one, who is in turn contemplating death of a third character (his lover). Because death has already arrived in this construction, though only just, the lover does not get to speak, but its effect is to make the second nar¬rator meditate upon his own mortality much like the dying second narra¬tors of all the other songs.

The question of how many elements of The Unfortunate Rake cycle Dylan imports into (it is tempting to say "retains in") Blind Willie Mc'Tell is only one of its aspects, but it is a starting point – it stresses their shared central purpose. Bob Dylan's rich and complex song, with a melody that winds across the path of the St. James Infirmary tune, is also about the problem of how to face death, extended onto the grandest of scales. While implic¬itly it mourns the death of McTell, it struggles with the problem of how to face, to witness, to confront, the world's death rather than an individual one.

Like The Unfortunate Rake songs, there are two narrators, and for the same reason, to summon more than one strategy in the face of death. In the Dylan song we find a first narrator who witnesses and a second who, says the first, could witness better.

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Sayin' this land is condemned
All the way frorn New Orleans to Jerusalem

I traveled through East Texas
Where many rnartyrs fell
An' I know no one can sing the blues likc Blind Willie McTell

I heard that hoot-owl sirrgin'
As they were takin' down the tents
The stars above the barren trees was his only audience

Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

See them big plantations burnin'
Hear the crackin' of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia bloom and see the ghosts of slavery ships

I can hear them tribes-a-moanin'
Hear that undertaker's hell
Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

There's a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He's dressed up like a squire, bootleg whiskey in his hand

There's a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

Well God is in His heaven And we all want what's His
But power andgreed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is

I am gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

What a song! And let me say at once that its opening verse parallels the beginning of The Unfortunate Rake songs. Where they see a doomed comrade wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay, Dylan sees the same thing on the grand scale: he has

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Sayin' thts land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem.

In the next lines, he pluralizes coming upon "one of my comrades," remembering that "many martyrs fell," and expressing a sympathy with other unwilling recruits whose presence is felt in this pageant of suffering and struggles – the tribes conscripted from Africa as slaves, the chain gangs forced to build the highways, the rebels forced to fight. And between "All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem" and "I traveled through East Texas" he sets up echoes of The Streets of Laredo, in which the narrator "born in South East Texas" says "I've trailed from Canadee down to old Mexico:" Instead of a crowd round the bedside and people to "sing a song,"

I heard that hoot-owl singin'
As they were takin' down the tents
The stars above the barren trees was his only audience.

In parallel with "the women from Atlanta;" 11 them flash-girls," or "pretty maidens,"

Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well ...

The flowers are here too. The Unfortunate Rake songs have "green laurel," "white roses," "red roses," "wild roses," "green roses," and "those sweet-smellin' roses"; they also have, in The Streets Of Laredo, a Southern setting in which "the jimson weed and the lilac does bloom:" In Blind Willie McTell we see a southern setting in which we "smell that sweet magnolia bloom:"

Dylan's

With some fine young handsome man

matches St. James Hospital's "with them handsome young ladies" and The Unfortunate Rake's "some handsome young woman," and he unites the Hamilton Hotel of McTell's narrative with the conventional St. James Infirmary in his own, perfectly placed St. James Hotel – Dylan also uses "the window," from the James Baker / Doc Watson variant. This begins with the window:

It was early one morning I passed St. James Hospital
... I looked in the window ...

and Dylan ends with it. I can't quite be certain, on either of the versions of Blind Willie McTell that have circulated, that Dylan sings

I am gazin' out the window ....

which reverses the old Texan version and places Dylan as the dying inmate, quietly appropriate to the theme that we are all facing imminent death; it's always enticingly close to

I am gazin' at the window...,

which would leave it nicely ambivalent as to which side of the glass Dylan is on as he bows his head and cries, while staring at the bleakness of the futureless future.

Dylan can also use the same language as The Unfortunate Rake cycle but under¬mine its meaning. That "fine young handsome man,"

He's dressed up like a squire ...

which throws a shadow across his fine and handsome aspect: "dressed up like" suggests both the counterfeit, weighted down by that "bootleg whiskey in his hand," and the vain, fluffed up by the resonance of the ear¬lier, matching "strut:" Even the "sweet magnolia" sounds quite unlike the "sweet-smellin' roses" of the earlier songs. I do not know why, since Dylan adds nothing more beyond the phrase itself, yet we smell it as overripe and sickly. Where once the flowers were there to cover the smell of corruption, in Dylan's song they give off the smell of corruption themselves.

Falsity, vanity and corruption compound cruelty and pain. Everywhere people are fallen, in chains, under the whip in this maelstrom of history. I say "maelstrom" because though it has been said that Blind Willie McTell rolls backward through America's past, in truth it offers no such consistent reverse chronology and its vision is not limited to American terrain, though it returns to it time and again, not least by the device of Blind Willie Mc'Tell's omnipresence.

This may disappoint the need for neatness but it is a strength of the song that most of its images evoke more than one era: more than one time and place, while pressing upon us, time and again, a running analogy between Old Testament and New World.

It begins at the beginning. The "arrow on the doorpost / Sayin' this land is condemned" flickers with a picture of the marking out of Jewish houses in the pogroms of the 1930s and with the daubing of the doors of plague victims in medieval Europe, but it harks back, as both these later scenes must, to the first occasion to yield such an image: the time of the Passover, when the first-born in Egypt were slain in the night by God, after the people of Moses were instructed to mark a sign on their doorposts in lamb's blood so that death might pass over and spare their children: "take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses," as God instructs Moses in Exodus 12:7.

What's so striking in Bob Dylan's lyric, what gives us the sense that poetry is at work, is that Dylan can use this as the opening of a song that holds out no hope that anyone shall be spared the destruction coming in our night. There may be a sign on the doorpost but whose first-born-¬whose future-is to be spared this time, now that the land has been

... condemned
All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem?

We reach America explicitly enough, of course, whrn we get to "East Texas, where many martyrs fell." Across the border from New Orleans. Louisiana, it sticks in the memorry as a stronghold ol the Ku Kiux Klan – a place where black victims were untold martyrs and where the same racist attitudes linger still. Yet "martyrs" has other, primarily religious, connota¬tions. The word is thrown in like a spanner, to wobble us off our course of easy assumption about the focus o1 the song. The word "fell" has a dis¬tracting quality here too, somehow calling attention to itself by its declam¬atory vagueness.

"Takin' down the tents" gives us another glimmer of the Israelites, now on their way out of Egypt, but suggests too the medicine shows, the carni¬val tents that linger into the 20th century from an older America. McTell and Bob Dylan both claim a bit of tent-cred in their early days¬ and for someone whose experience of it was mostly in the mind, Dylan wrote of it in thrillingly energetic detail in Dusty Old Fairgrounds, where we feel the pitching and dismantling of the tents as a routine, an activity, a part of life, all through the song. He claims a similar intimacy with this life when he discusses his own (now Iost) poem Won't You Buy a Postcard?

in 1962, The Hawks had medicine show experience; Elvis's manager, Colonel Parker, was an old carnie trooper. Even as recent a figure as the contemporary blues singer Robert Cray recalls that in the early days he and his musicians hit the road in an old truck and camped overnight in tents as they traveled (roaming the country like "charcoal gypsy maid¬ens"). But "them charcoal gypsy maidens" also conjures up nubile black girls in 1920s cabaret routines, shimmying through the floor shows of smoky nightclubs in black and white movies – the sort in which the blues singers never get a look-in, because "sophisticated" jazz combos deliver slicker, jollier routines more compatible with Hollywood sensibilities.

There is almost nothing ambiguous about time or place in the next sec¬tion of the song, in which time is running backward from Gone With the Wind to the roots of Roots: yet the word "tribes" arrives strikingly here. It has a rigor that cuts across the assemblage of shorthand images of the Antebellum South. It dislocates the expected chain of words as "martyrs" does earlier.

Aptly, "them tribes" come pouring in across the very center of the song – aptly because the analogy clutched in this double image, the analogy between the twelve tribes of Israel and the African tribes brought over on the slave ships, is the central analogy Dylan draws all through the song. It is, moreover, the classic analogy drawn by the oppressed American blacks themselves, all the way through till at least Blind Willie McTell's genera¬tion, as they compensated themselves for the miseries of this life by look¬ing forward to justice in the next and reading the Bible's accounts of the struggles of the Israelites in order to voice their own aspirations. We shall overcome some day. That's why I'm sending up my timber. And I know no one can sing them hymns like Blind Willie McTell.

The "woman by the river" might equally be biblical or Mississippian. She is timeless. The "squire" suggests the 17th or 18th-cen¬tury, but "dressed up like a squire" adds in all those 19th-century Southern landowners striding their estates in high boots and frilly shirts while the blacks, almost invisible, worked the land. The "bootleg whiskey in his hand" can equally smell of the stills in the hills (where they ain't paid no whiskey tax since 1792) or of Prohibition Chicago, another milieu the old blues singers lived and worked in. The "chain gang on the highway" must keep us in that recent past but the "rebels," whoever else they must be, insist on yelling to us from the American Civil War.

This multi-layering of the pageant takes its cue from theopening verse: crucially to our whole understanding of the song, "All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem" must be capable of pitching us both backward and forward-back frm the New Orleans of now or of McTell's generation, the New Orleans where you might say black American music found its feet, to the Jerusalem of Bible days; and forward to the new Jerusalem dreamed of but now doomed not to be: dreamed of but "condemned:"

One of Dylan's inspired touches here, in that nigh-perfect penultimate stanza, is to underscore his tolling of doomsday by alluding to, and then contorting, those well-known lines of optimism and hope,

God's in his Heaven¬
All's right with the world.

The twisting of this fresh-faced couplet into the brutish modernism of

Well God is in His heaven
And we all want what's His

could hardly be bettered: Dylan uses the mugging energy of the bare greed he describes to give his lines a slashing economy, hitting us with the switch from the lost innocence of the original.

Those lines are by Dylan's old friend Robert Browning – from the first section, Morning; of the dramatic poem Pippa Passes – and Dylan's song takes from the poem more than just this one, expertly handled, crude allusion. To know the context is to see that Dylan snatches away not just the gentleness, nor even primarily the reassuring stasis or apparent perma¬nence of those often-quoted lines, by replacing Browning's contentment with the bleakness of "But power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is:" More especially Dylan contradicts Browning's vision of the world as fresh and pure because young, because purged by the coming of spring.'This is the context:

'The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven¬ –
All's right with the world."

Dylan's "seed" deftly acknowledges this context, while shriveling it away at once into the biblical rhetoric of "corruptible seed" – a latency that promises only further decay in a world already old and exhausted. Dylan turns morning into mourning, replacing the lark on the wing with the hoot-owl in the barren trees.

While Dylan sounds the undertaker's bell, the song itself never shrivels – it moves but it certainly does not depress. It examines the problem of how to face death but it tingles with life. The black girls, in that lovely, eccentric construction, strut their feathers. The song presses a sense of our senses upon us. Blind Willie McTell, his other senses heightened, is never far away. Yet true to McTell's uncanny visualizing spirit, seeing is insisted upon. In one verse alone we see, hear, smell and see again. The first word of the song is "seen"; the end of the song finds him "gazing:" All through, spooky as the plangent, coiling music, Dylan's sixth sense emits its vibrant, probing beam.

Out of death, life arises. Out of bodily pain, the triumph of the spirit (pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn't it?). Out of singing the blues, compensation: even joy. Dylan celebrates, in this song-as Blind Willie McTell does in The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues: The work of art, as ever with Bob Dylan, is the recording, not the words on the page: but the words on the page demand from Dylan, and receive, two of his most focused performances: paying tribute to McTell's artistry, he rises to the occasion with the excellence of his own. What a song!, you say when you read the lyric. What a record!, you say when you hear the belatedly issued performance.

This is the spookiest important record since Heartbreak Hotel, and is built upon the perfect interweaving of guitar, piano, voice and silence – an interweaving that has the space for the lovely clarity of single notes – a gui¬tar string stroking the air here, a piano note pushing back the distance there. And if anything, the still-unreleased performance is even better, for its more original melody (less dependent upon the conventional St. James Infirmary structure) and its incandescent vocal, which soars to possess the heights of reverie and inspiration. No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, but no one can write or sing a blues like Blind Willie McTell like Bob Dylan.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sun October 9th, 2011, 06:12 GMT 
Titanium Member

Joined: Sun January 4th, 2009, 23:46 GMT
Posts: 5223
Michael Gray (2005)

The English ballad The Unfortunate Rake; its many variants, including the cowboy ballad The Streets Of Laredo; the black standard St James Infirmary; and Blind Willie McTell’s The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues – all these related songs end up wondrously transmuted into Dylan’s 1980s masterpiece Blind Willie McTell.

What all these songs do is allow some articulation of a fundamental human problem – how to face death. The use of two narrators allows an interplay, or balancing, between different strategies. In the early versions, the dying hero or heroine is often preoccupied with a sense of shame or unworthiness, while the person who comes upon them, and tells us their story, is confronting imminent loss, the impermanence of comradeship, the responsibility of bearing witness to death. Later versions mediate between these feelings of tenderness, sorrow and grief for another, and the dying person’s own need to banish the fear of death by making light of it.

This duality is especially heightened in McTell’s Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues, which begins (in the 1956 version) with a long and attentive spoken account of caring for the dying friend, of the daily care over a period of weeks, the ambulance ride, the father on hand, the sorting out of practicalities—followed by the reductive mythologising of those practicalities by the careless victim (“Let a deck of cards be my tombstone. . . . Life been a doggone curse”), and culminates in the first narrator’s submission to the second’s show of indifference: “Throw my buddy Jesse in the hoodoo wagon / Come here mama with that can of booze . . . / With the Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues.”

This is a very similar ending to the conventional one for St James’ Infirmary: “Well now you’ve heard my story / Have another shot of booze / And if anyone should happen to ask you / I got the St. James Infirmary Blues.” What makes St James’ Infirmary different is that it almost has three narrators. That is, the first narrator meets not a dying second narrator but a healthy one, who is in turn contemplating the death of a third character (his lover). Because death has already arrived in this construction, though only just, the lover does not get to speak, but the effect is to make the second narrator meditate upon his own mortality much like the dying second narrators of all the other songs.

The question of how many elements of the “Rake” cycle Dylan imports into (it’s tempting to say “retains in”) ‘Blind Willie McTell’ is only one of its aspects, but it is a starting point: it stresses their shared central purpose. Dylan’s rich and complex song, with a melody that winds across the path of the St James’ Infirmary tune, is also about the problem of how to face death, extended onto the grandest of scales. While implicitly it mourns the death of McTell, it struggles with the problem of how to face, to witness, to confront, the world’s death rather than an individual one.

Like the ‘Rake’ songs, there are two narrators, and for the same reason, to summon more than one strategy in the face of death. In the Dylan song we find a first narrator who witnesses and a second who, says the first, could witness better. The opening verse parallels the beginning of the ‘Rake’ songs at once. Where they see a doomed comrade wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay, Dylan sees the same thing on the grand scale: he has ‘. . . seen the arrow on the doorpost / Sayin’ this land is condemned / All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem.’ In the next lines, he pluralises coming upon ‘one of my comrades’, remembering that ‘many martyrs fell’, and expressing a sympathy with other unwilling recruits whose presence is felt in this pageant of suffering and struggle: the tribes conscripted from Africa as slaves, the chain-gangs forced to build the highways, the rebels forced to fight. And between ‘All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem’ and ‘I travelled through East Texas’ he sets up echoes of ‘The Streets of Laredo’, in which the narrator ‘born in South East Texas’ says ‘I’ve trailed from Canadee down to old Mexico’. Instead of a crowd round the bedside and people ‘to sing a song’, here ‘I heard that hoot-owl singin’ / As they were takin’ down the tents / The stars above the barren trees was his only audience.’ In parallel with ‘the women from Atlanta’, ‘them flash-girls’, or ‘pretty maidens’, here ‘Them charcoal gypsy maidens / Can strut their feathers well.’ The flowers are here too. The ‘Rake’ songs have ‘green laurel’, ‘white roses’, ‘red roses’, ‘wild roses’, ‘green roses’ and ‘those sweet-smellin’ roses’; they also have, in ‘The Streets of Laredo’, a southern setting in which ‘the jimson weed and the lilac does bloom’. In ‘Blind Willie McTell’ we see a southern setting in which we ‘smell that sweet magnolia bloom’.

Dylan’s ‘With some fine young handsome man’ matches the “St. James Hospital” variant’s ‘with them handsome young ladies’ and The Unfortunate Rake’s “some handsome young woman”, while Dylan unites the ‘Hamilton Hotel’ of McTell’s narrative with the conventional ‘St. James’ Infirmary’ in his own, perfectly placed ‘St. James Hotel’. Dylan also uses ‘the window’, from the James Baker / Doc Watson variant. This begins with the window: ‘It was early one morning I passed St. James’ Hospital / . . . I looked in the window . . .’ and Dylan ends with it: ‘I am gazin’ out the window’, which reverses the old Texan version and places Dylan as the dying inmate, quietly appropriate to the theme that we are all facing imminent death.

Dylan can also use the same language as the “Rake” cycle but undermine its meaning. That ‘fine young handsome man’ is ‘dressed up like a squire, bootleg whiskey in his hand’, which throws a shadow across his fine and handsome aspect: ‘dressed up like’ suggests both the counterfeit, weighted down by that ‘bootleg whiskey’, and the vain, fluffed up by the resonance of the earlier, matching ‘strut’. Even the ‘sweet magnolia’ sounds quite unlike the ‘sweet-smellin’ roses’ of the earlier songs. Dylan adds nothing more beyond the phrase itself, yet we smell it as overripe and sickly. Where once the flowers were there to cover the smell of corruption, in Dylan’s song they give off the smell of corruption themselves.

Falsity, vanity and corruption compound cruelty and pain. Everywhere people are fallen, in chains, under the whip in this maelstrom of history. Though it’s been said that ‘Blind Willie McTell’ rolls backwards through America’s past, in truth it offers no such consistent reverse chronology, and its vision is not limited to American terrain, though it returns to it time and again, not least by the device of McTell’s omnipresence. This may disappoint the need for neatness but it is a strength of the song that most of its images evoke more than one era: more than one time and place, while pressing upon us, time and again, a running analogy between Old Testament and New World.

It begins at the beginning. The ‘arrow on the doorpost / Sayin’ this land is condemned’ flickers with a picture of the marking out of Jewish houses in the pogroms of the 1930s, and with the daubing of the doors of plague-victims in medieval Europe, but it harks back, as both these later scenes must, to the first occasion to yield such an image: the time of the Passover, when the first-born in Egypt were slain in the night by God, after the people of Moses were instructed to mark a sign on their doorposts in lamb’s blood so that death might pass over and spare their children: ‘. . . take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses’, as God instructs Moses in Exodus 12:7.

What’s so striking in Bob Dylan’s lyric, what gives us the sense that poetry is at work, is that Dylan can use this as the opening of a song that holds out no hope that anyone shall be spared the destruction coming in our night. There may be a sign on the doorpost but whose first-born—whose future—is to be spared this time, now that the land has been ‘. . . condemned / All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem’?

We reach America explicitly enough, of course, when we get to ‘East Texas, where many martyrs fell’. Across the border from New Orleans, Louisiana, it sticks in the memory as a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan: a place where black victims were untold martyrs, and where the same racist attitudes linger still. Yet ‘martyrs’ has other, primarily religious, connotations. The word is thrown in like a spanner, to wobble us off our course of easy assumption about the focus of the song. The word ‘fell’ has a distracting quality here too, somehow calling attention to itself by its declamatory vagueness.

‘Takin’ down the tents’ gives us another glimmer of the Israelites, now on their way out of Egypt, but suggests too the medicine shows, the carnival tents that lingered into the 20th century from an older America. McTell and Dylan both claim a bit of tent-cred in their early days – and for someone whose experience of it was mostly in the mind, Dylan wrote of it in thrillingly energetic detail in ‘Dusty Old Fairgrounds’, where we feel the setting down and pulling up of the tents as a routine, an activity, a part of life, all through the song. He claims a similar intimacy with this life when he discusses his own (now-lost) poem ‘Won’t You Buy a Postcard?’ on Cynthia Gooding’s radio show in New York in 1962. The Hawks had medicine show experience; Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker, was an old carnie trooper. Even as recent a figure as the contemporary blues singer Robert Cray recalls that in the early days he and his musicians hit the road in an old truck and camped overnight in tents as they travelled (roaming the country like ‘charcoal gypsy maidens’). But ‘them charcoal gypsy maidens’ also conjures up nubile black girls in 1920s cabaret routines, shimmying through the floor-shows of smokey night-clubs in black and white movies: the sort in which the blues singers never get a look in, because “sophisticated” jazz combos deliver slicker, jollier routines more compatible with Hollywood sensibilities.

There is almost nothing ambiguous about time or place in the next section of the song, in which time is running backwards from Gone with the Wind to Roots: yet the word ‘tribes’ arrives strikingly here: it has a rigour that cuts across the assemblage of shorthand images of the Antebellum South: it dislocates the expected chain of words as ‘martyrs’ does earlier. Aptly, ‘them tribes’ come pouring in across the very centre of the song: aptly because the analogy clutched in this double image, the analogy between the twelve tribes of Israel and the African tribes brought over on the slavery ships, is the central analogy Dylan draws all through the song. It is, moreover, the classic analogy drawn by the oppressed American blacks themselves, all the way through till at least Blind Willie McTell’s generation, as they compensated themselves for the miseries of this life by looking forward to justice in the next, and reading the Bible’s accounts of the struggles of the Israelites in order to voice their own aspirations. We shall overcome some day. That’s why I’m sending up my timber. And I know no-one can sing them hymns like Blind Willie McTell.

The “woman by the river” might equally be biblical or Mississippian. She is timeless. The “squire” suggests the 17th or 18th century, but ‘dressed up like a squire’ adds in all those 19th century Southern landowners striding their estates in high boots and frilly shirts while the blacks, almost invisible, worked the land. The ‘bootleg whiskey in his hand’ can equally smell of the stills in the hills (where they ain’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792) or of Prohibition Chicago, another milieu the old blues singers lived and worked in. The ‘chain-gang on the highway’ must keep us in that recent past but the ‘rebels’, whoever else they may be, insist on yelling to us from the American Civil War. This multi-layering of the pageant takes its cue from the opening verse: crucially to our whole understanding of the song, ‘All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem’ must be capable of pitching us both backwards and forwards—back from the New Orleans of now or of McTell’s generation, the New Orleans where you might say black American music found its feet, to the Jerusalem of Bible days; and forward to the new Jerusalem dreamed of but now doomed not to be: dreamed of but ‘condemned’.

One of Dylan’s inspired touches here, in that nigh-perfect penultimate stanza, is to underscore his tolling of doomsday by alluding to, and then contorting, those well-known lines of optimism and hope, ‘God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world.’ (For detail see Browning, Robert.) While Dylan sounds the undertaker’s bell, the song itself never shrivels: it moves but it certainly doesn’t depress. It examines the problem of how to face death but it tingles with life. The black girls, in that lovely, eccentric construction, strut their feathers. The song presses a sense of our senses upon us. Blind Willie McTell, his other senses heightened, is never far away. Yet true to McTell’s uncanny visualising spirit, seeing is insisted upon. In one verse alone we see, hear, smell and see again. The first word of the song is ‘seen’; the end of the song finds him ‘gazing’. All through, spooky as the plangent, coiling music, Dylan’s sixth sense emits its vibrant, probing beam.

Out of death, life arises. Out of bodily pain, the triumph of the spirit (pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?). Out of singing the blues, compensation: even joy. Dylan celebrates, in this song—as Blind Willie McTell does in ‘The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues’. The work of art, as ever with Bob Dylan, is the recording, not the words on the page: but the words on the page demand from Dylan, and receive, two of his most focussed performances: paying tribute to McTell’s artistry, he rises to the occasion with the excellence of his own.

This is the spookiest important record since ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and is built upon the perfect interweaving of guitar, piano, voice and silence—an interweaving that has space for the lovely clarity of single notes: a guitar string stroking the air here, a piano note pushing back the distance there. And if anything, the still-unreleased performance is even better, for its more original melody (less dependent upon the conventional ‘St. James’ Infirmary’ structure) and its incandescent vocal, which soars to possess the heights of reverie and inspiration. No-one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, but no-one can write or sing a blues like ‘Blind Willie McTell’ like Bob Dylan.

Spookily, too, perhaps, Dylan’s recording of ‘Blind Willie McTell’ manages to commemorate not only the death of McTell but his birthday also. McTell was almost certainly born in 1903, and the only specific birthdate ever mooted has been May 5. Either by eerie coincidence, or because Dylan is a walking blues encyclopedia, when he came to record ‘Blind Willie McTell’ in 1983, he did so on May 5.

Aptly, in view of their subject matter, there is even a further correspondence between McTell’s masterpiece ‘The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues’ and Dylan’s masterpiece Blind Willie McTell – these two great songs about appropriate leave-taking—in the tiny detailing of how they take their leave of us. A doubled rhyme is one way to signal the end of a song, as Christopher Ricks points out a` propos of Senor (Tales of Yankee Power), which ends with ‘Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, Senor?’ Ricks calls this ‘making a conclusive ending, that your conclusions can be more drastic,’ adding that this is ‘exactly what Andrew Marvell did in the greatest political poem in the English language: that is, the ‘‘Horatian Ode’’. . .’ Nowhere this side of Marvell will you find more effective use of such extra emphasis of rhyme as a signing-off device at song’s end than when McTell ends ‘The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues’. He sings the final phrase as ‘It’s the dyin’ crap-shoo-doo’s blues’: putting equal and emphatic weight on each of these last sounds. As you might expect, Dylan finds a neatly equivalent little thing for the end of ‘Blind Willie McTell’. In fact Ricks makes a generalisation in 1980 about Dylan’s work which is prophetically accurate about this 1983 song: ‘. . . he’s obsessed with two things. One is human situations which you can’t imagine ever really coming to an end, and the other is the simple technical question of how if you’re singing a song you do something intuitive and imaginative to let people know that it really is the end.’ In this case, paralleling ‘The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues’, Dylan finds a solution to this ‘simple technical question’ that is an intuitive touch of tribute to McTell. Instead of a rhyme like those that conclude his other verses— ‘bell/McTell’, and so on—his last verse simply doubles that subliminal ‘tell’, pairing ‘I am gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel’ with ‘And I know no-one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.’

The very phrase “sing the blues” re-expresses in colloquial terms the ancient Hebrew custom of making lamentations, or mourning songs, ‘upon the death of great men – and upon any occasion of public miseries and calamities,’ in Adam Clarke’s phrase. In the Old Testament book Lamentations (short for the Lamentations of Jeremiah), Jeremiah composes a lamentation on the death of Josiah the King, but also a lamentation upon the desolations of Jerusalem, which are visited on the Jews by God for their worship of false idols. In ‘Blind Willie McTell’ Dylan achieves a lamentation that serves to commemorate both public calamity and individual demise: to deal with the envisaged desolations to come, ‘all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem’, and the death of Blind Willie McTell.

In concert, Dylan waited until 1997 before singing Blind Willie McTell at all (its debut was in Montreal 5 August 1997 and he has performed it a further 94 times since), and even then, he chose to duplicate the inferior, reshaped version recorded by The Band. This decision, combined with a tendency to easy posturing in his delivery, has meant that in concert it has never received its due: never been quite the fitting tribute it should be, to either McTell or to his own masterly song.

Oliver Trager

An Infidels outtake greater than anything on that fine comeback album (and arguably anything else Dylan has ever recorded), Blind Willie McTell stands as one of Dylan’s mid-period masterpieces – a homage to the blues cipher and a personal vision of slavery’s dark legacy in American history with more than a nod to Strange Fruit, Abe Myerpole’s song of lynching made famous by Billie Holiday. Featuring Mark Knopfler on guitar with Dylan, the song was first a rumoured gem and then a choice piece of bootleg tape filler. But it did not surface for official consumption until The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 was released in 1991. An unreleased electric version recorded during the Infidels sessions is also said to be in circulation.

Why the song was left off Infidels in the first place is a matter of speculation. Dylan has said at least twice that he was dissatisfied with the final result, but that explanation seems a bit thin when one considers that excluding Blind Willie McTell from Infidels in favour of the far lesser fare that did make the cut weakened and forever marred the album for what it would have, could have and should habe been.

As he has in so many of his notable works, Dylan drew from biblical and American folk music sources to compose Blind Willie McTell. Ben Cartwright’s article The Bible In The Lyrics Of Bob Dylan: 1985-1990, in The Telegraph #38 (spring 1991), for example, points out lyrical and thematic allusions to 2 Kings 24:10-16, 2 Peter 2:6 and 1 Peter 2:3. From the American folk idiom, Dylan borrows the St James Hotel (a brothel or a morgue also known in song as St James Infirmary, depending on the source) in name and tune, further colouring the thematic sensibility of enslavement. While he may also be alluding to a real St James Hotel in Minneapolis (there is another in Red Wing, Minnesota), the “St James Infirmary” appears in a number of jazz, blues, folk and cowboy songs – if not in the very title, then as a location, nearly always representing a Last Chance Café – the bottom of the heap. In any case, these many related songs seem to derive from The Unfortunate Rake, a British ballad, and a 1960 Folkways LP by that title, produced by Kenneth Goldstein, documents the folk process for these song variations.

The first lines of Blind Willie McTell (“Seen the arrow on the doorstep / Saying, this land is condemned / All the way from New Orleans / To Jerusalum”) introduce the song’s interwoven thematic and inspirational cores, the Bible and slavery, as they recall the Old Testament’s Exodus and stations on the Underground Railroad, which had arrows painted on their doorposts as a secret code to runaway slaves – explicitly and unconsciously making the connection with the blood of lambs on the first Passover. Dylan implies that both lands – the biblical Egypt and the slaveholding south – were damned.

The song goes on to metaphorically paint a kaleidoscopic, profoundly impressionistic portrait of black experience in America in a series of vivid, sombre images – a veritable Hieronymus Bosch of a country-gospel folk blues, with everything from slavery to minstrelsy to revivalism and prophesy rearranged into a vision as important as anything in Dylan’s canon. “Chain gangs”, “charcoal gypsy maidens”, “barren trees”, “big plantations burning”, “cracking whips”, “ghosts of slavery ships”, “tribes a-moaning”, “the undertaker’s bell” – these are mind-breaths that can, and should, take the listener to some difficult places.

After four verses of such imagery, Dylan’s paraphrase of ! Peter finishes the song in more concrete surroundings, from a vantage point “Gazing out the window / Of the St James Hotel” – we all want heaven, “But power and greed and corruptible seed / Seem to be all that there is” – he pulls images from the black experience, from the south, and into each of our presents. Yet still, despite what our individual hardships may be, Dylan reminds us at the end of each verse – and at the end of the song – that “Nobody can sing the blues / Like Blind Willie McTell”.

Perhaps more than anything else, Blind Willie McTell and Dylan’s covers of McTell’s Delia on World Gone Wrong were responsible for reviving recent interest in McTell’s legacy. McTell (born 5 May 1901, Thompson, Georgia; died 19 August 1959, Almon, Georgia) is the grand pooh-bah of the Atlanta blues school of the 1920s and 1930s, and his astonishing fluidity on 12-string guitar helped to define the ragtime-influenced southeast and Piedmont guitar styles of the era. The 12-string guitar was popular among Atlanta musicians, but particularly useful to McTell for the extra volume it provided when he plied his trade singing on the streets. His exploitation of his instrument’s resonance and percussive qualities on his dance tunes was even more notable, considering his remarkably delicate touch on slow blues. His distinctive thin, nasal voice gave his music a ghostly quality, a potent ingredient when combined with his demonic abilities on the guitar.

McTell recorded prolifivally and cut grooves for many labels under a variety of pseudonyms from 1927 to 1956. The blues, of course, are what McTell is remembered for, but he recorded rags, ballads, pop tunes and folk numbers as well – he also recorded sacred and secular duets with his wife, Kate, in 1935. Though he was never a commercial success, his influence on Atlanta locals and both black and white musicians from points beyond the horizon was important. The Allman Brothers Band, for example, recorded and still open many of their shows with searing versions of McTell’s signature song, Statesboro Blues.

As with many sightless bluesmen, McTell’s blindness is the cause for some debate among bluestorians. Some claim he was born sightless, while other sources insists that he lost his vision as a teenager. Regardless, it is well established that McTell had been blind for a number of years when he began recording, and that he had attended several schools for the blind, where he learned to read Braille. He learned how to play guitar from his mother, and when she died he joined up with the traveling medicine shows popular at the time on the carnival circuits. As time passed, though, Atlanta’s storied Decatur Street was where he could usually be found, buskung for tips and spare change with his old running buddy Curly Weaver. Around Atlanta, he developed his performance style at house parties and fish fries, where he sharpened the dramatic guitar stylings evident on his first records for Victor and Columbia in 1927 and 1928.

McTell recorded regularly until 1932 but sporadically (and some say less effectively) after that, skirting contractual obligations by adopting various monikers – such as Blind Sammie and Georgia Bill – for studio sessions. Under his own name, there was a remarkable Chicago date for Decca in 1935 and an important recording for John Lomax’s Folk Song Archive of the Library of Congress five years later, both of which feature him discussing his life and his music and playing a variety of material. These records offer priceless insight into the art of one of the true blues greats.

With the end of World War II came another committed stab at commercial viability for Atlantic and Legal records, but McTell failed to attract much attention and returned to the street corners for his sustenance. He made his final recordings in 1956 at a session arranged by a record-shop manager. Perhaps the roustabout life led to a more introspective vision of himself, as his recordings of the 1940s and early-1950s found him moving in the direction of spirituals. But McTell proved to be as commanding as ever even in his later work, some of which ranks among his best. The Blues Foundation inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 1981.

The Band began covering Blind Willie McTell as a stinging electric blues in the early-1990s, but Dylan did not touch it in performance until the summer of 1997. Rendered as a rapturous electric psychedelic blues, it was an instant concert highlight. In an artful irony, Dylan originally recorded (coincidentally or not) Blind Willie McTell on what would have been its subject’s 82nd birthday.

Clinton Heylin

Published lyric/s: Lyrics 04.

Known studio recordings: Power Station Studios, NYC, 11 April 1983 – 7 takes; 18 April 1983 – 2 takes; [15 May 1983.][TBS]

First known performance: Montreal, 5 August 1997.

“To resolve is nothing more than letting go. Do you think Rembrandt ever finished a painting?” Dylan to Allen Ginsberg, October 1977

For many people, Blind Willie McTell is Dylan's one indisputable masterpiece of the early-1980s. It has become one of those songs which has taken on a life of its own. Yet for eight years it was another of those bootleg-only must-haves he had been producing since day one. When it was finally released on The Bootleg Series, already a legend in its own lunchtime, it was still not in the form that the artist himself preferred. The acoustic versus electric argument still rages. I have already put my hat firmly in the latter camp. But whatever one's persuasion one would be hard-pressed to validate the decision to second-guess Dylan himself by utilizing an all-acoustic take previously used for copyright purposes on the 1991 set, after the artist put the electric version on the first Infidels sequence (and on the mid-May 1983 15-track “comp reel”).

Not surprisingly, given all the plaudits this “reject” has received, Blind Willie McTell is a song about which Dylan gets rather defensive. Asked about it in 1997 – when he had finally begun performing it in concert – he retorted, “So many [songs] that people elevate on such a high level were in some sense only first drafts.” He went on to say something similar to novelist Jonathan Lethem in their 2006 interview: “[Blind Willie McTell] was never developed fully; I never got around to completing it. There wouldn't have been any other reason for leaving it off the record.”

This latter-day mantra fails to convince. Not only was the tune not his to change, but also he never altered a single word in the month he spent intermittently attempting to “complete” it. He appears to have been altogether more upfront talking to Kurt Loder less than a year after he recorded it, matter-of-factly stating, “I didn't think I recorded it right.” All the evidence supports this contemporary statement. The tape logs for the Infidels sessions can only tell us part of the story, but they show a pattern similar to the one for Caribbean Wind at the Shot Of Love sessions. Almost the entire first session at Power Station (11 April 1983) was occupied by a preoccupied Dylan trying to get this set of sessions off to a propitious start. Something called “Run Down” was cut 14 times at the start of the 11 April 1983 session, the first 13 all being marked “instrumental”. It is unlikely to be another cover, but is probably Blind Willie McTell in its pre-lyrical guise. Said “song” is succeeded by a series of attempts at the latter composition.)

It is decidedly unlike Dylan to run down a song 13 times before getting down to the meat of the matter, especially with tape rolling. He was clearly investing a lot of psychic energy in getting this one right. When that did not work, he returned to it a week later, at the end of a session designed to produce a usable Sweetheart Like You, cutting the song twice more. And finally, on 5 May 1983, he cut it one last time – this time in an acoustic guise from which it was copyrighted ten days later. (Though Knopfler is credited with second guitar on this take, Taylor is the more logical candidate. Had not Knopfler already been summarily fired by Dylan?)

The acoustic version was evidently a last throw of the dice. And the fact that it was the version copyrighted – along with Tell Me – suggests it may have been under consideration for album duties. But although Blind Willie McTell came very close to making the album – appearing on the first so-called “Knopfler sequence” – it appeared there in its electric guise (like the Blood On The Tracks test pressing, this first Infidels sequence was circulating before the kosher artefact appeared in the shops).

For Dylan to have worked as long and hard on the song as he did, he must have thought very highly of it. He certainly admired, to the point of reverence, Blind Willie McTell (namechecking McTell in interview as early as 1977, as he entered his “New Pony” phase). That he considered him some kind of tortured soul is evidenced by a comment made to Elliott Mintz on the song's eventual release in 1991, when he described the man as “a very smooth operating blues man [whose] vocal style, and his sound seems to fit right in with that lonesome sound. You could probably say he was the Van Gogh of the country blues.'

It is an odd description, if you ask me. The first part rings true, but in comparison with many blind blues contemporaries McTell had a long, “successful” career. And he was an entertainer first, a performer second, and a tortured artist a poor third, rather belying the symbolic value Dylan accords the name. Equally curious is the fact that the 12-string guitarist's standard material was hardly immersed in the Apocalypse the song bearing his name foretells. In fact, Willie Hodges, who often played with McTell outside the Jaekel Hotel in Statesboro, recalled, “We was singing all kinds of blues and ragtime. We sang a spiritual every now and then.” This held true even at the end. At his last session McTell recorded 19 songs, not one of which was a religious number.

Another blind Willie, though, sang of nothing but redemption and judgement – Blind Willie Johnson – and perfectly fits the sobriquet, “the Van Gogh of the country blues”. Would not it just be the most deliriously Dylanesque irony if he picked McTell – rather than Johnson – because the name rhymes real well (he might have had more problems if McTell had pronounced his surname correctly, as McTear). It would not be the first time, now would it?

Something is not quite right. McTell – who now has an entire book to his name, courtesy of a man named Gray – did self-consciously record one song called Mr McTell Got The Blues, but precious little of his output really fits the tenor of the song, which reeks of the fumes of hell-fire. McTell tended to like uptempo pieces, and though he had a small, if growing, number of gospel-type songs in his repertoire – of which the Motherless Children on his 1949 Atlantic LP20 stands tall – his material could be as salacious as the best of them (the one McTell song Dylan has released, Broke Down Engine – a song about impotence – sits very firmly in this camp).

Blind Willie Johnson, on the other hand, was a singer who really could have brought the whole damned curtain down. Unlike his namesake, Johnson enjoyed no 30-year recording career. He cut a couple of dozen tracks between November 1927 and April 1930, before disappearing into the backwater from whence he came, ultimately dying of pneumonia in the 1940s after being turned away from a hospital because he was blind. He also knew McTell personally (McTell told John Lomax in 1940 that they had travelled together “from Maine to the Mobile Bay” in the 1930s).

Dylan knew Johnson's work well, recording a variant of Jesus Make Up My Dyin' Bed (In My Time Of Dyin’) in 1961; while in the fall of 1980 he worked up versions of Bye And Bye I'm Goin' To See The King and Nobody's Fault But Mine. Johnson's entire work was explicitly religious. A street-corner singing evangelist, he recorded a Motherless Children even more haunting than McTell's, part of a full repertoire of songs about the great day coming, including Trouble Will Soon Be Over, the aforementioned Bye And Bye I’m Goin’ To See The King and his real showstopper, John The Revelator (the one Johnson song used by Harry Smith on his fabled Anthology of American Folk Music).

However, surely Johnson's most haunting recording is Dark Was The Night, a piece that is nothing more than a series of moans set to a simple six-string accompaniment, yet would have given namesake Robert the willies. In its apposite inarticulacy it is the perfect valedictory to Man (one of a handful of recordings put on the Voyager spacecraft, it may yet be the one example of “the blues” to survive the “end times”, if – as Dylan suggests on another Infidels recording – “Man has invented his doom”).

Johnson would certainly have shared Dylan's new-found obsession with the sins – and sinfulness – of this world we live in, and would undoubtedly have agreed about the cause – “corruptible seed”, as Dylan puts it. Original sin, passed on by the seed of Adam. That it oppresses the rock singer is clear from the context:

“Power and greed and corruptible seed seems to be all that there is.”

Dylan is telling us he still believes he has been “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Peter 1:23). At the same time, the narrator of Blind Willie McTell is consumed by his own mortality, sensing that he is nearing the end of his time on this earth. Reflecting the song's self-conscious setting – the Saint James Infirmary – he can “hear that undertaker's bell”.

To reinforce that sense of impending doom, and to give this song about the blues the requisite setting, Dylan has gone back to a familiar practice, taking a tune from some traditional “fare thee well”. He twice alludes to his debt to St James Infirmary in the song's lyric: first, in the opening couplet, where he suggests the coming darkness will spread “all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” (the original St James Infirmary was in New Orleans). He also sings, in the final couplet, of “gazing out the window of that old St James Hotel”, which shows a knowledge of the song's history – the infirmary often being called a hotel (“hotel” meaning “hospital” in French). He thus emphasizes that the narrator is singing his own version of St James Infirmary, a song which looked back on a wasted life:

“When I die, pretty woman, please bury me,
Six more to sing a song,
Got my pockets full of moonshine whiskey,
And I'll drink as the world rolls on.”

Dylan may not have known the full history of the original he so recrafts, but he would have recognized the type in an instant. St James Infirmary is a wild and wicked youth song: like the Newlyn Town he used to perform, and parodied on I Am A Lonesome Hobo. Its origins date back to an old British-Irish broadside-archetype, The Unfortunate Rake, which can with a degree of certainty be dated to the early-19th century, but was probably an old drinking song even then. Blind Willie McTell reinvigorates the tradition – and this time the wild and wicked youth is the whole damned world.

The archetype in question spawned so many derivatives it was almost bound to appear in a repertoire as extensive and eclectic as Blind Willie McTell's. Sure enough, at his 1949 Atlantic session, co-produced by the late great Ahmet Ertegun – which means McTell was recorded by probably the two most important “producers” of the pre-rock era, the other being Ralph Peer – McTell recorded a song of his own, Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues, that not only is a spirited adaptation of the St James Infirmary tune, but also rewrote the single “floating” verse in a devil-may-care way:

“Sixteen real good crapshooters
Sixteen bootleggers to sing my song
Sixteen racket-men gamblin'
Cover [till-bar] while I'm rollin' along.”

Yet McTell's Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues is no more St James Infirmary than is Dylan's blues. Even if one is a traditional artist working in the idiom and the other is a conscious songwriter of the first water, the notion that this is what Dylan envisages being sung at the world's end beggars belief. Blind Willie McTell is mournful. McTell's song is an “I-did-it-my-way x” to the world. It is the Clancys' I've Been A Moonshiner to Dylan's Moonshine Blues.

Like that equally fatalistic reinvention of tradition, Dylan was determined to put every ounce of expression into Blind Willie McTell in the studio – acoustic or electric – and when he felt he had not delivered, he decided the world deserved better. It would take 14 years, and a cover version from some old friends, to convince him otherwise. As he later admitted, “I started playing [Blind Willie McTell] live because I heard The Band doing it.” (Their so-so version appeared on their 1993 “comeback” album, Jericho.)

Not that The Band were the first rock combo to cover this lost classic. Five years earlier, it had been Los Angeles-based Paisley Underground Darlings Dream Syndicate who thought it worthy of its own vinyl record (their version appearing as a free 45 in the musiczine, Bucketful of Brains). And whereas The Band took Dylan's acoustic re-take as their template, Steve Wynn's band leant on the electric original.

Dylan also adopted the electric version as his own template when he finally put the song where it belonged – in his live set during the summer of 1997, awaiting the release of his first original album in seven years. He even made the message of the song marginally more explicit, singing of a land condemned “all the way from New Orleans to New Jerusalem . Because he had meant the city of God – not some temporal coordinates on a map - all along. Like Blind Willie Johnson, he could happily quote John The Revelator, who “saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven” (Revelation 21:2) long after he checked out of the St James Hotel.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sun October 9th, 2011, 14:46 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Tue April 7th, 2009, 00:42 GMT
Posts: 529
Location: Toronto, ON
Untrodden Path wrote:
There is a Spring 2004 show (Chicago, March 7?) where the interplay between Larry's cittern and Freddy's Strat is just jaw drop amazing. I'm sorry to say its unlikely we'll ever hear anything that wonderful again... at least, not in this life.
Have you heard any from 2011? They've all been pretty good...


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sun October 9th, 2011, 19:00 GMT 
Titanium Member
User avatar

Joined: Fri February 11th, 2005, 02:23 GMT
Posts: 9646
marker wrote:
Possibly the greatest song to be cut from a Dylan album...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45to9ZEK0x8


I don't care for this song Blind Willie McTell and I don't see what the big deal is. Bob has done many better songs than this. Judging from the number of words written on it in this thread alone, this song is way over-rated.

Whereas this song is tired and dull, the real Blind Willie McTell was lively and interesting, for example:

Razor Ball.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1WsDfBLK2k

Just my opinion that's all.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Sun October 9th, 2011, 19:45 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Thu August 2nd, 2007, 13:41 GMT
Posts: 443
Location: Lincoln County Road . . . (or Armageddon?)
Recently I put together a Dylan outtakes CD for a friend who only has a couple of Dylan albums (Freewheelin', Greatest Hits, Highway 61) to show him that Dylan's throwaways are superior to almost any artist's best work. I figured that he would be so impressed that he would buy more Dylan albums (also figured that it would be okay to share released content since it would probably be years before he made it to The Bootleg Series).

While screening songs with headphones on, I fell into one of those hazy, half-conscious states. That is until the first notes of "Blind Willie McTell." At that moment, my pulse quickened, my breathing shortened, and though I have heard the song over a hundred times, it was as if I were hearing it for the first. Truly a transcendent moment!


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Mon October 10th, 2011, 08:56 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Thu October 21st, 2010, 20:59 GMT
Posts: 453
Location: In the dark, glowing
According to today's Guardian it was really written by M Knopfler. http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2 ... k-knopfler. Wikipedia says so too. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_Willie_McTell_(song). I always thought it was too good to be by Dylan.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Mon October 10th, 2011, 09:09 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Sat May 14th, 2011, 08:00 GMT
Posts: 176
Location: Australia
If it's in the newspapers it must be true! :lol:

Hmmm, imagine being Knop picking away at this song while Bob sings the take.....


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Mon October 10th, 2011, 09:42 GMT 
Titanium Member

Joined: Sun January 4th, 2009, 23:46 GMT
Posts: 5223
so who's iphone did the guardian hack into to get that story - bob's or knopfler's??

then again, i doubt that bob would even know what an iphone is, yet alone own one


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Mon October 10th, 2011, 10:12 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Wed June 22nd, 2011, 10:06 GMT
Posts: 3712
Flesh-Colored Christ wrote:
According to today's Guardian it was really written by M Knopfler. http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2 ... k-knopfler. Wikipedia says so too. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_Willie_McTell_(song). I always thought it was too good to be by Dylan.


What??? You're kidding , right?


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Mon October 10th, 2011, 10:46 GMT 
Titanium Member
User avatar

Joined: Wed October 1st, 2008, 17:15 GMT
Posts: 8343
Location: This Town Ain't Big Enough...
The article is confused, of course. And as of right now, that information isn't on the Wiki page.


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Mon October 10th, 2011, 10:53 GMT 
User avatar

Joined: Wed June 22nd, 2011, 10:06 GMT
Posts: 3712
Music by Bob Dylan and M Knopfler lyrics by Bob Dylan says wiki. Bullshit. Musically it is another one of Bob's lovelly theft's :
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXMx8OW32Bs
which is also is based on an 18th century traditional English folk song of anonymous origin.
Blind Willie can only be Bob's. By the way , it's such a great song :wink:


Top
 Profile  
 
PostPosted: Mon October 10th, 2011, 12:36 GMT 

Joined: Tue January 13th, 2009, 02:13 GMT
Posts: 582
stuart wrote:
One of his very best lyrics, and a brilliant recreation of St. James Infirmary. It's one of those songs where knowing the original track enriches Dylan's rewrite, so here is a Louis Armstrong version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzcpUdBw7gs

Good point! Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" is an interesting recreation of "St. James Infirmary" and one of the better songs he did in the 80's and it is interesting that he didn't release it at the time. I made this point in another thread but if anyone is interested in the song "St. James Infirmary", there is a great site which you can find here which collates something like a 100 different recordings of "St. James Infirmary Blues" by various artists which you can listen to. My favourite version of the song is probably one of the versions done by Josh White (although I am also a big fan of Snooks Eaglin's version as well as the version done together by Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliott). As much as I like Dylan's take on the song, I think I enjoy these versions more.


Top
 Profile  
 
Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Post new topic Reply to topic  [ 36 posts ]  Go to page 1, 2  Next

All times are UTC


Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Anr Bjotk, Jeeps


You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group