Blind Willie McTell (song)
|"Blind Willie McTell"|
|Song by Bob Dylan from the album The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991|
|Released||March 26, 1991|
|Recorded||May 5, 1983|
|The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991 track listing|
"Blind Willie McTell" is a song by Bob Dylan, titled after the blues singer Blind Willie McTell. It was recorded in 1983 but left off Dylan's album Infidels and officially released in 1991 on the The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. The melody is loosely based on "St. James Infirmary Blues". For the song, Dylan, seated at the piano and accompanied by Mark Knopfler on the twelve-string acoustic guitar, sings a series of plaintive verses depicting allegorical scenes which reflect on the history of American music and slavery. Each verse ends with the same refrain: "Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell".
Following three albums with overt Christian themes, Infidels struck most major rock critics as dealing largely with secular concerns, and they hailed it as a comeback. The mysterious exclusion of "Blind Willie McTell" complicates the story. When bootleggers released the outtakes from Infidels, the song was recognized as a composition approaching the quality of such classics as "Tangled Up In Blue", "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower".
"Blind Willie McTell" was a concert staple for The Band throughout the 1990s. They also recorded it for their 1993 album Jericho. Dylan later claimed in a Rolling Stone interview that hearing The Band's version of the song inspired him to begin performing it at his own concerts:
"Dylan can't possibly be sorry that the world has had the benefit of hearing, for instance, "Blind Willie McTell", – an outtake from 1983's Infidels that has subsequently risen as high in most people's Dylan pantheon as a song can rise, and that he himself has played live since. Can he? Bob Dylan – "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.'"
The Michael Gray book Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan (2002) includes a chapter on this song and its musical and historical background.
Tony Attwood on the Untold Dylan web site argues Dylan was right to say the song was unfinished as it contains multiple difficulties. He argues that the song has lyrically and musically, nothing to do with the music of Blind Willie McTell and the song’s line about McTell has nothing to do with the rest of the lyrics. Attwood finds the line “I’m gazing out the window of the St James Hotel” interesting however since St James Hotel has nothing to do with Willie McTell – but McTell did record the song St James Infirmary Blues (on which Dylan’s tune is based) under the title “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues” 
This song has been covered by many artists, including:
- Scott Holt
- Mick Taylor
- Tom Russell
- Southside Johnny & Little Steven
- Tex, Don and Charlie
- Dream Syndicate
- Elliott Murphy & Iain Matthews
- Peter Mulvey & Jeffrey Foucault
- Charlie Parr
- The White Stripes
- The Allman Brothers Band
- Dutch band De Dijk
- Stephen Stills
- Tom Morello, The Nightwatchman
- The Boogie Men
- Barb Jungr
Notes and references