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Hand Me My Travelling Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell
by Michael Gray

Book review by Mark Harrison

I was quite pathetically thrilled to discover that this book was going to come out. The idea that someone, in this year of 2007, had written a book entirely about the great Blind Willie McTell went straight into the very small folder entitled ‘Nice Surprises’.

When I was at school, I found in a junk shop in Coventry a Blind Willie LP called Trying To Get Home on the Biograph label. I knew something about the history of blues and who the great names were, and when I got this, Blind Willie went straight into the premier league of blues greats for me. I had a couple of his early songs on a compilation album, and this stuff stood up alongside them very well indeed. It was a mixture of ragtime, acoustic blues that rhythmically and in delivery nodded ahead to rock’n’roll, and gospel, with tinges of the pop music of the day. It had as bright and clear a sound as possible, and it pinned your ears back. It didn’t sound old, it sounded totally fresh. The guitar playing was simply astonishing. I was just trying to teach myself to play and I thought: ‘I’ll never sound like that, I’m just happy someone does. I’ll admire it from afar instead, because afar is as near as I’m going to get to playing like that.’

At the time, what was about to be called rock music was in the process of being born, and it consisted mostly of guitar solos. Willie didn’t do guitar solos, he did something much, much more difficult and interesting. It always seemed to me that this was real guitar playing. The lead stuff was just technical, you could learn it if you really wanted to, it was of your world. What Willie was doing was from somewhere else entirely, way beyond the aspirations of rock music. The 12-string made a unique, stunning noise, and the great Curley Weaver was on board, making for probably the best twin guitar act in the history of music. Willie had this bright and cheery voice, with an element of the rogue in the naughty stuff and an element of anguish in the gospel stuff. He was quite an enigma, part jolly troubadour, part dark bluesman. Much later I was to discover that this material wasn’t meant to be anything like his best stuff. Recorded in 1950, way past his heyday, it wasn’t what his reputation rested on. Sounded damn good to me, though.

These days, this sort of experience simply wouldn’t happen. Them young’uns, don’t know they’re born (as a venerable blues artist didn’t quite say to me recently). You get an interest in the blues, and if you want to pursue it, it’s all laid out for you. Blind Willie McTell, despite having been dead for the thick end of 40 years, seemingly releases a CD just about every year. If you want to get his complete works in one fell swoop (and there’s quite a lot of it), a relatively modest outlay will secure the lot. No need to go ferreting around junk shops for what we used to regard as treasure. You can see the chronology, get all the stuff neatly sorted and go through from start to finish. In a way, I envy this, and regard it as just about the only advantage of modern technology. A small part of me regrets the passing of accidental discovery, though.

You couldn’t get a book about him back then, though, but you can now. Willie’s now got his very own book, rather than just being one of the many covered in other books, including most notably the works of the great Sam Charters. Charters’ first book, The Country Blues, came out just months after Willie died in 1959, aged 56 (as Michael Gray more or less ascertains). This of course meant that Blind Willie didn’t live long enough to get ‘rediscovered’ in the folk/blues revival years that followed more or less immediately after his death. If he’d done so, he was sharp enough, personable enough, and hugely talented enough to have been the biggest ‘star’ of that revival, I reckon. For a start, aspiring guitarists would have queued around several blocks to confirm that they had no chance of being as good as him.

He would doubtless have been both overjoyed and bemused as he picked up the royalties generated by an almost infinite number of covers of his great, definitive song Statesboro Blues. This fine number, rendered generally unrecognizable by electric bands who turned it into a simple, chugging, 12-bar, was a victim of manslaughter by everyone from the humble bar band to the stadium rockers in all their pomp. Aside from Elmore James’ Dust My Broom, surely no song can ever have been so horribly mangled so often as this one. What would Willie have made of being associated forever with this song? Well, a lot of money, probably. And he’d have cheerily trotted it out for anyone who wanted to hear him do it.

From the point of view of writing a book about him, the biggest hurdle Michael Gray had to surmount was the sheer lack of first-hand or first-person information on him. If he’d survived to be rediscovered, he would have been obliged to tell his life story, with an ever-increasing amount of embroidery, over and over again to well-meaning white folk. This would at the very least give the biographer a head start, a mass of raw material to sift through, interpret, follow up on, assess for veracity, divide up, comment on, and so on. But, as Michael Gray makes clear in his book, Willie never got to any even faint degree of celebrity in his lifetime. His early recordings, in the late 1920s and 1930s, sold reasonably well in their niche market, and his reputation among his peers was high. But the wider world hadn’t heard of him and so there’s hardly any first-person account to draw on, aside from the 1940 interview recorded with John Lomax, (and Gray finds something very interesting about that). Other people wrote about him in the 1970s, but Gray finds that some of the testimony from their witnesses is to say the least unreliable. So he couldn’t do anything like a ‘cuttings job’ – there are hardly any cuttings.

What he does, therefore, as the subtitle indicates, is to make the search for information as much a part of the book as the information itself. It’s important to point out here that Michael Gray is English, and lives here, and so he presents , as he puts it, ‘an outsider’s eye’ as he recounts his trips to Georgia on his quest. In addition to the narrative elements that these investigations give to the book, Gray also makes it as much an account of the history, factual and social, of the area that Willie came from as the story of a single musician. To tie the various elements together, he carries out a prodigious amount of research into Willie’s tangled family background, beginning with his white great-grandfather in the Civil War years. Gray toils heroically for nuggets of information about Willie’s family, and there are touching descriptions of the elation he and his wife feel on uncovering a document, such as a birth certificate, that helps fit the pieces of a very complex jigsaw together. There’s some fascinating stuff in this early section, particularly on the position of black people in Georgia, Willie’s stamping ground throughout his life. Not all of what Gray uncovers is what you might expect.

When we reach Willie’s birth, Gray takes us through a fascinating study of the social set-up as it evolved (or in many ways didn’t) through the decades of Willie’s life. We learn about Willie’s time at blind school, and his movement into becoming a professional musician, which he seems to have managed to be without any destitution for most of the rest of his life, until illness got the better of him towards the end. We then move on to his recording career, and here I think just the right amount of information is given – the author doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of each session and each song, which must have been a temptation given the lack of sources to draw on about Willie’s life. After what is generally regarded as his recording heyday, we move on to what he was up to for the rest of his life, including sporadic bits of recording (for Lomax in 1940 and others after that). And then we get his final years and the aftermath, including a riveting section about the hospital where Willie died, and where the author gets to experience a bit of the kind of southern hospitality that ‘long-hairs’ wandering into redneck land used to get in the 1960s.

Into all this, Gray weaves his own narrative, as he goes to various parts of the state of Georgia to uncover snippets of information vital to his project. He provides highly detailed and informative pen pictures of the modern south, and we get the impression of a kind of sullen backwater, not particularly affected by modern developments of the social kind, but hugely affected by developments of the commercial and corporate kind. The old south, with all its horrors, is still traceable in what Gray uncovers and experiences in the modern south, and the new south, at least this part of it, seems to lack the spirit that bubbled under the surface of the old, and not totally replaced, social order. Some of the bureaucrats and authorities he rubs up against in his quest give him a pretty frosty reception, and probably sense that he isn’t exactly writing copy for the Georgia Tourist Board or whatever it’s called.

On the other hand, not all the authority figures are glacial bureaucrats or nasty bits of work, and a number of people prove to be helpful to him, often unexpectedly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these are black people who understand what he’s doing and get on his side. They realise that he’s trying to tell the story of a truly great black artist who hasn’t hitherto got anything like his due in the annals, and some of them go beyond the call of duty to do what they can. So Gray makes breakthroughs in his quest, and the reader celebrates these with him.

But it’s by no means a simple case of white folks bad, black folks good, and one of the features of the book is that Gray doesn’t set out to prove pre-ordained points from what he discovers and what happens to him. He tells it straight, and is refreshingly free from the constraints of what is generally known as political correctness. There are decent people and there are horrible people, and by their actions are they judged. Curley Weaver’s daughter, for example, is allowed to come across as an unjustifiably embittered dragon by her own words and actions, and Gray has no compunction in delivering her to us as she was with him – there are no weasel words about how being hard-done-by or downtrodden excuses her, she just ain’t nice. Willie’s first wife, Kate, who appears to have told some of the biggest whoppers known to man when interviewed by earlier researchers, also gets short shrift.

Gray is dealing with individuals in his book, and they are allowed to be individuals, not shoehorned into some homogenous group by white middle-class sensibilities. When Gray talks both about the people who impinged on Willie’s life and the people who are part of Gray’s own story in his quest, we get a picture of these people as people, not as stereotypes in a liberal world view. Some of them do desperate things, because their situation is desperate, some of them do noble and decent things because they’re noble and decent people, and some of them do dreadful things because they’re dreadful people. In all three categories can be found both white and black.

 
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And what about Willie himself? Well, the central figure comes across as being much like the persona detectable in his music. The jaunty singer seems to have been a pretty cheery bloke, able to overcome any restrictions of blindness in quite remarkable ways. He doesn’t seem to have been a tormented soul, but an entertainer who was able to make the most of his talents in the sense of keeping himself afloat financially. Despite the location and the times, he doesn’t seem to have lived in squalor most of the time, and people queue up to testify to his consistently smart appearance. Nobody, alive or dead, seems to have had a bad word to say about him. Being primarily a street musician doesn’t seem to have placed him at the bottom of any social heap, and he seems to have done reasonably OK for himself. He doesn’t seem to have behaved especially badly in any way, and you get a picture of a dignified man commanding the respect of just about anyone who came across him.

In his laudable anxiety not to over-simplify anything with one-dimensional characters, Gray finds something a bit negative, in that in one session late in his life, while under the influence of a skinful, Willie makes some fairly misogynist comments about a woman. And he drank quite a bit. Well, he wasn’t an absolute saint then, but if that’s the only evidence of bad behaviour on the part of an itinerant black bluesman in Georgia in the early 20th century, he’s pretty close to one. Gray knows that, and presents us with a picture of a blind man who looked the world in the eye, carried himself with decency, and made his mark in a way that needs acknowledging.

When people describe something as ‘a labour of love’, they often mean that it’s the product of a pointless obsession, and not very good. Neither of these is the case with this labour of love. Michael Gray’s interest in Blind Willie, which is high at the beginning and gathers momentum as his search goes on, results in a fascinating book about someone whose talent and output fully merits this treatment. With little to go on, and much of that unreliable, he has dug out every fragment of information it is possible to get at this remove. Most of the first-hand witnesses are long dead, and towards the end of the book, Gray becomes unashamedly cross that earlier writers didn’t get more information from them or ask them the right questions when they had the chance. He’s done what he can, and what he can is good enough.

Now Michael, I don’t think there’s ever been a book about Sonny Boy Williamson, you know the real one, not that Rice Miller geezer. When I was in another junk shop, I happened to stumble across...

 

Michael Gray will be reading from the book at a special Blind Willie McTell event at the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon Road on Sunday November 4th. See listings for details.