Bob Dylan’s best songs: Blind Willie McTell

Blind-Willie-McTell & Bob Dylan

Kurt Loder: I heard an outtake from the Infidels sessions called Blind Willie McTell. Is that ever going to come out? It’s a great song.
Bob Dylan: I didn’t think I recorded it right. But I don’t know why that stuff gets out on me. I mean, it never seems to get out on other people.
~Bob Dylan (Kurt Loder interview 1984)

[Blind Willie McTell] He was just a very smooth operating bluesman. His songs always reminded me of… As trains, but that ‘s just my hang up, you know, trains. And his vocal style, and his sound seems to fit right in with that lonesome sound. His kinda, you know, Ragtime… kinda thing on a 12 string guitar, so it made everything he did sound, you know, give it a little higher pitch. You know, you could probably call… You could probably call… you could probably say he was the Van Gogh of Blues. You could probably say he was the Van Gogh of the country Blues.
~Bob Dylan (Eliot Mintz Interview, March 1991)

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
~Bob Dylan (Blind Willie McTell)

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.
~Michael Gray (The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)

An unmistakable masterpiece, one of the true high points of Dylan’s astonishing career as composer and performer..
~Paul Williams (Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, Vol 2: The Middle Years 1974-1986)

Electric version:

“Blind Willie McTeII” 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.
~Paul Williams (Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, Vol 2: The Middle Years 1974-1986)

Released version:

@#6 on my list of Bob Dylan’s top 200 songs.

Both versions are brilliant, but If I must choose (and I do) I’ll give the electric version a nod.

 

Facts

bob dylan bootleg series 3

Wikipedia

“Blind Willie McTell”
Song by Bob Dylan from the album The Bootleg Series Volume 3
Released March 26, 1991
Recorded May 5, 1983
Length 5:52
Label Columbia Records
Writer Bob Dylan
Composer Bob Dylan
Producer Mark Knopfler

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”.

Known studio recordings:

  • Studio A – Power Station Studios, NYC, April 11, 1983 – 21 takes
  • Studio A – Power Station Studios, NYC, April 18, 1983 -2 takes; The “Electric version” is probably from this session.
    Bob Dylan (vocal, harmonica
    keyboards & guitar)
    Mark Knopfler (guitar)
    Mick Taylor (guitar)
    Alan Clark (keyboards)
    Robbie Shakespeare (bass)
    Sly Dunbar (drums)
    Produced by Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan.
  • Studio A – Power Station Studios, NYC, May 15, 1983 -2 takes; Released on “The Bootleg Series Volume 3” 26 March 1991.
    Bob Dylan (vocal & piano)
    Mark Knopfler (guitar)
    Produced by Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan.

bob dylan mark knopfler 1983

Live:

  • First known live performance:
    Du Maurier Stadium
    Montreal, Quebec, Canada
    5 August 1997
  • It has been performed 232 times live, last known performance: Skråvika, Stavern, Norway on July 11, 2014 (with alldylan’s Egil & Hallgeir present)
  • Top year’s 2013 (51 times), 2011 (17 times) & 1997 (17 times)

 

bob dylan 2012
Bob Dylan plays ‘Blind Willie McTell’ for Martin Scorsese — Jan. 12, 2012

For many people, ‘Blind Willie McTell’ is Dylan’s one indisputable masterpiece of the early eighties. 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’d 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…
~Clinton Heylin (Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan Vol. 2, . 1974-2008)

Bob-Dylan-Blind-Willie-Mcte-31097

Lyrics

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.
~Michael Gray (The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)

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

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’..
~Clinton Heylin (Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan Vol. 2, . 1974-2008)

Live versions

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 Manet 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.’
~Bob Dylan (Rollingstone interview Sept 2006)

Here are five wonderful live versions:

Wembley Arena
London, England
6 October 2000

Manchester Evening News Arena
Manchester, England
9 May 2002

Hollywood Palladium Theater 12 January 2012 (Video)

Columbia, Maryland
Merriweather Post Pavilion
July 23, 2013

Sources

Check out:

-Egil

7 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s best songs: Blind Willie McTell”

  1. When I’m asked what my favorite Mr. Dylan tune is I find I often shrug my shoulders helplessly and state most likely the last I heard. However if pushed BWM would be right up there. No matter the circumstance it never fails to absolutely bring me to my knees.

  2. Read Bob’s advice quoted in “Househunting in Tribeca” – He said, “When you’re painting a picture, don’t adjust it too much, or at all. Just make the thing and leave it alone.” He then added something I will never forget and which is now a fundamental belief guiding my work: “If you mess with it too much, it’ll suck the life out of it.”
    Clearly, Bob wasn’t thinking this way about BWM when he said ” It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it”. Listen to your own advice Mr. Dylan – The song is wholly perfect in it’s original form.

  3. It’s not blasphemy, just your take on the song. That’s cool. For me, it’s about top 5 Dylan. Riveting, spine tingling.

  4. Their is a St James hotel on the banks of the Mississippi River in Red Wing .. Minnesota .. with rooms named after famous American writers .. i could imagine BD looking out of the window watching the river flow all the way to New Orleans.

  5. Yeah, I know it’s blasphemy, but I’ll never understand the insane accolades this song receives. The subject manner is great, but as far as Dylan’s vast catalog goes, this is one of my least favorite songs.

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