May 012012

I recently read Michael Gray’s biography of Georgia blues musician Blind Willie Mctell. The book is titled hand Me My Traveling Shoes, a line from McTell’s best-known song, “Statesboro Blues.”

Gray’s approach is to dig through primary sources of all kinds to fill in the hazy details of McTell’s life and times. Learning about African Americans in the southeast United States from the early 1900s is often a puzzle that tests the patience of a diligent researcher. Gray did his research well, resulting in a thorough and balanced history. If you are a fan of country blues or early-1900s folk music, this is a great read.

A Great Musician

Gray paints McTell as an energetic, industrious, optimistic soul. Blind from birth or from childhood (the specific details are unknown), Willie McTell was one of Atlanta’s most popular blues performers. McTell played the 12-string guitar with brilliance and skill. During the 1920s and 1930s, the 12-string was a popular instrument in Atlanta for its loud sound and the complex piano-like tone. McTell was one of the top 12-string players of his day. Today the 12-string is usually played with simplistic strums, but McTell played jumping bass lines and syncopated rhythms on it, plus a little slide work too.

McTell’s singing was sweet and high in a tenor range. He defies today’s stereotype of “blues singing” as whiskey-soaked growl and rasp. And his material also defies today’s notion that blues music is about miserable topics. No doubt there are some nasty numbers among the few dozen recorded McTell tracks available today, but most of the songs have a playful or rowdy tone to the lyrics. His “blues” are no bluer than the popular country songs and folk ballads from the same period.

McTell is known as a blues musician, and he was a specialist and innovator in the forms of Piedmont blues. But there is a strong gospel thread through his recordings too, along with some borrowing from popular songs and ragtime numbers. McTell was an entertainer, not a purist.

Turbulent Times

Gray lays out a detailed study of the historical, geographical, and cultural context of McTell’s life. McTell lived from 1903 to 1959, a period in which Georgia went from post-war reconstruction to urbanization and industrialization. McTell lived on the fault lines between country and city, between black and white, between farm and factory.

McTell’s blindness was no more a hindrance to him in his day than it would be today. He booked his own gigs over the telephone. He walked the country roads around the small towns where he grew up. He knew the streets, landmarks, and tram lines throughout Atlanta during a time when the cityscape was changing rapidly. In those days, the streets were redesigned to accommodate the arrival of automobiles, and the population of Atlanta doubled in the first two decades of the twentieth century. McTell is portrayed in this book as someone who kept in step with the changing times.

McTell was savvy and earned his living from his music. Some who don’t get a close look might expect blind musicians from a century ago to live as bumbling, penniless street performers who really didn’t know what was going on around them. On the contrary, McTell was literate, well oriented to Atlanta life, popular, and much admired.

First-Person Biographer

Another unique feature of Gray’s book is the inclusion of first-person anecdotes from the author’s research trips to Georgia. Gray is British and brings a foreigner’s objectivity to the task. He describes how he found census records, birth certificates, death certificates, and funeral home records. He also points out the many unfortunate gaps in the paper records from the early 1900s in the south.

Gray joined forces with an local couple to find the lost grave site of McTell’s second wife, Helen. He gives his impressions and opinions about the interesting and curious personalities that he interviewed. And he describes many of the helpful people behind desks at courthouses, libraries, a funeral home, and the medical institution where McTell died. At one point Gray found himself in the hateful eye of a hard-ass Georgia country cop. Being a guy with a British accent means he got more than the standard helping of humiliation and cruelty, an experience which could help an outsider appreciate what African Americans lived with every day under southern segregation.

It’s a curious thing to me. A writer in the twenty-first century has a terrible and frustrating time finding out about a popular black musician from a major city in the United States from less than a century ago. Does this show us how primitive and indifferent American society really was just a couple generations ago?

This dense book doesn’t read like Wikipedia. It’s for nerds who love the method and the research for its own sake as well as the subject matter being uncovered. Pick up Gray’s book, and you’ll get an appreciation for McTell along with a broader understanding of the times in which he lived.

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