Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell

January 01, 1970

(Chicago
Review Press)

 

www.chicagoreviewpress.com

 


BY RICK ALLEN

 

By the third page of Michael Gray’s Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of
Blind Willie McTell
(published recently by Chicago Review Press), the
titular bluesman circa the summer of 1956 is described as “a bit overweight”
and looking “about sixty”, “old” and “elderly.” In the summer of 1956 according
to the birth date as determined by the author’s own research, Blind Willie
McTell was 53 years old. Some sources give his birth year as 1898 which would
have made him 58 at the time. Allowing for the burdens of life in the American
South for any black man who lived during the first half of the 29th century and even adding on the wearying pressures that come from being an
itinerant, blind musician, the age related adjectives used by Gray, who was 62
when this book was published in his native United Kingdom, seem a little cliché;
black + bluesman = old.

 

Despite that quibble, Gray, who has written
extensively if not always to universal agreement about Bob Dylan, has written a
very interesting book about the life and times of William Samuel McTell, known
to history as Blind Willie McTell. With facts being scarce and obscure, even
ones concerning relatively recent history, Gray had quite a task to make
McTell’s tale as comprehensive as possible and he’s done quite a good job of
it, creating a book that sparks further interest McTell’s life and art and the
lives and art of some of his precursor and contemporaries, helping to put back
their stories in their proper place in the fabric of American music and history.

 

The book has its faults; Bessie Smith, Ethel
Waters, Brownie McGee, Josh White, B.B. King and a host of other blues singers seem
to counter Gray’s belief that McTell’s precise diction separates him from the
“typical” blues singer. But, hey, half a century after McTell’s death, there
are people who marvel at the “articulateness” of America’s first black president. Apparently
Bryant Gumbel has been out of mainstream public view for too long.

 

On the plus side, Gray goes back, Michener-like to
the formation of the world McTell came into and lived through, giving brief
but  well- researched and detailed sketches
of the Civil War and its aftermath and of slavery and the civil rights struggle,
all of which do a great deal toward informing the reader what all the fuss is
about concerning American race relations and why true blues – as opposed to the
British blues-rock of Page, Clapton etc. – sounds most authentic played by
Americans, black or white. Since racism degrades both its targets and its
perpetrators, all Americans are in some ways victims of it; their blues is
informed by that condition, knowingly or not. 

 

Any biography of an American black (or southern)
musician has got to deal with the history of race relations in order to give a
fleshed out portrait. Gray has done a remarkable job of holding up the mirror
and, as a non-American is not hampered by some of the inevitable emotionally
charged biases – good or bad – that would affect an American writer of any
race.

 

By the time he gets to the particulars, such as
they are, about his ostensible subject, Blind Willie McTell, Gray has done a
superb job of setting the scene; he gets a lot of it right, not just socially
and historically but musically too. He is spot on when he talks about how East
Coast Blues is given short shrift by critics who laud the Blues of the delta,
Texas and later , Chicago as more authentic, more “bluesy.”

 

Gray reminds the reader of the long connection
between pre-country “hillbilly” music and the blues and of the division between
them too and he sketches in the recording history of both. He also deals
briefly with how the blues (originally an a cappella vocal music, at first on
record and gradually in the public perception, went from being a female
dominated piano backed music to one dominated by guitar playing men.

 

By the time the book gets as detailed as it can
about McTell the reader has been given invaluable knowledge of things hidden,
denied, resented, mis-interpreted and just plain forgotten or written out of
American chronicle. If Gray’s story of Blind Willie McTell’s life and times is
more “times” than “life,” it’s no less readable and worth reading for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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