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)
I thought it would be interesting to see how the song has changed over the years. I believe I have found 4 fantastic versions, and my favourite is still the electric studio version from May 1983.
Let’s start with that one:
“Blind Willie McTell” is a song by Bob Dylan, titled after the blues singer Blind Willie McTell. It was recorded in the spring of 1983, during the sessions for Dylan’s album Infidels, but was left off the album and officially released only in 1991 on 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.'”
Dylan started performing the song live in the summer of 1997, and an August 17, 1997 concert performance appeared on various releases of his “Love Sick” single in June 1998.
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
Let’s hear a version from the 1990s, Filene Center, Wolf Trap Farm Park For The Performing Arts, Vienna, Virginia
24 August 1997, fantastic version:
I’ve chosen a great version from Wembley Arena, London, England, 6 October 2000 to represent the decade from 2000-2010:
My last choice is from Switzerland, Lucern, July 15, 2015: