Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell cover versions audio and video

Blind-Willie-McTell cover versions

Well, God is in heaven And we all want what’s his 
But power and greed and corruptible seed Seem to be all that there is

Blind Willie McTell was voted the best 80s song in our little poll, deservedly so.

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 has a resemblance to  “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”.

Bob Dylan – Blind Willie McTell (audio, Bootleg series 1-3):

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 the 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

Bob Dylan – Blind Willie McTell (audio, electric version):

“One of Bob Dylan’s absolute masterpieces, “Blind Willie McTell” is the jewel of The Bootleg Series and arguably one of the finest songs ever written. Recorded in 1983 for the album Infidels, it was deemed superfluous to requirements, and all that remains is one take of the song with a full band (yet to be officially released) and this haunting demo, with Dylan playing piano with accompaniment from Mark Knopfler.”
– Thomas Ward (allmusic)

The best!

Now let’s listen to 10 very good takes on Blind Willie McTell!

Barrence Whitfield and Tom Russell – Blind Willie McTell (audio from the album, Hillbilly Voodoo, 1993):
Blind Willie McTell by Barrence Whitfield with Tom Russell on Grooveshark

Dream Syndicate – Blind Willie McTell (audio):

Avialable on Rough Trade compilation Country 1.

Great slide and lovely organ solo.

One of the best versions!

Bob Dylan cover version from a free single given away wih Bucketfull of Brains. No dates of the recording are listed. Apologies as it cuts just before the end of the song…..

“This is a song we’re probably not allowed to play and if I said why, of course, we wouldn’t be allowed to play it. So I won’t say how we learned how to play it…”
– Intro by Steve Wynn

Obviously, this was before the official release on the Bootleg series.

Allman Brothers Band – Blind Willie McTell (Wanee Festival 4/16/2010 Live Oak Florida):

Shared lead vocal between Greg Allman and Warren Haynes, and it works beautiful.
and also the shared lead guitars between Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks.

Levon Helm Band – Blind Willie McTell – FloydFest 7.24.10:

Levon Helm Band gave quite the magical & powerfully moving performance, headlining FloydFest 9 in Floyd County, Virginia. Fare the well Levon. We will never forget your earthy, pure & kind-hearted soul.

Levon sings his soul into the song!

The Band – Blind Willie McTell (audio from the album, Jericho):

Those vocals, man! Maybe the best version apart from Dylan’s two known studio 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 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.’”
– Bob Dylan

Roger Chapman ‘Blind Willie McTell (live Newcastle 2002):

Nice touch with the clarinet intro.

Mick Taylor – Blind Willie McTell (Dutch TV, 2009):

Jef Lee Johnson ‎- Blind Willie McTell (audio):

Superb instrumental rendition!

Tom Morello (The Nightwatchman) – Blind Willie McTell (audio, Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International):

Let us finish with a sweedish version, it is intense and very well done.
Mikael Wiehe & Ebba Forsberg – Blinde Will McTell (audio from the album, Dylan på Svensk):

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


– Hallgeir

5 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell cover versions audio and video”

  1. Pingback: 2014 BOB DYLAN
  2. Very nice, thanks. A point of clarification, the acoustic version was not the demo as reviewers tend to write. As Clinton Heylin explains:

    “And finally, on May 5, he cut it one last time-this time in an acoustic guise from which it was copyrighted ten days later…The acoustic version was evidently a last throw of the dice. And the fact that it was the version copyrighted-along with “Tell Me”-suggests it may have been under consideration for album duties.”

    It’s a bit of a complicated history, but, as at least my ears confirm, the electric version is (a great!) work in progress while the acoustic version is a fully realized take of the masterful song.

    1. I like the electric version best, I love how the pace is increasing and the instruments added as we go along. That said, I also agree with you that the piano version feels more finished. I love them both!

      Thanks for the feedback!

      – Hallgeir

Comments are closed.

Focusing on Bob Dylan & related music