Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell
by Michael Gray
Chicago Review Press (448 pp)
Blind Willie McTell, like Robert Johnson and other legendary figures, never had a hit record. When he died in 1959, after decades of playing on the streets and clubs of Atlanta, Georgia, he was largely forgotten – but today is celebrated. Several of his songs, most notably “Statesboro Blues,” have become staples of blues and blues-rock. Mystery author David Fulmer made McTell a central character in “The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues,” inspired by one of McTell’s songs; and Bob Dylan wrote that “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” Among blues enthusiasts and scholars, the body of McTell’s music is second to none. With Michael Gray’s new book on McTell, “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes,” we get part social history, part biography and part travelogue as Gray takes the reader on his journey in uncovering the facts of McTell’s life.
This is not simply a dry recitation of the life and music of Blind Willie McTell. He takes us back several generations to McTell’s ancestors, which include a slave owner who fought for the Confederacy and was even a prisoner of war. Using census materials, he comes across the many different spellings as well as the small rural Georgian communities, tracks what ancestors on both sides of McTell’s family did, and lived, and takes us through his birth, childhood and career as a musician who made a number of celebrated recordings during his life, yet was relatively forgotten when he passed. Using census records, old newspapers, and oral history he evokes the world McTell lived in, one of white supremacy, segregation and lynchings, yet one where McTell seemed to avoid the harshest aspects of the racist repression.
Gray tracks his life from upbringing, the school for the blind, and his homes in various communities including Statesboro and Atlanta. McTell, despite his handicap, was quite independent and able to negotiate the streets and buses of Atlanta quite well. We are taken to the places he lived, the women in his lives and how his reputation was sufficient to earn him a recording career. Gray does not over-romanticize McTell or his music. He recognizes its greatness and yet realizes that he was not a major recording star in terms of record sales. He also is sober in discussing about McTell’s music as represented on recordings. He gives us the stories underlying how the sessions came about and discusses succinctly the recordings, where they took place and gives reasoned and thoughtful analysis.
This extends beyond simply the commercial recording sessions for Victor-Bluebird, Okeh, Decca and others. There is some consideration of the Library of Congress recordings made under the auspices of John A. Lomax and Gray does spend some space noting that the original reissue of this material had some omissions, because if a few bits of speech were left off, they could get everything else on one tape and thus was issued first on record and then CD, even listed as The Complete Library of Congress Recording is not complete and omits some of McTell’s comments on songs or that he used to sing “I Got to Cross That river Jordan” which he used to sing and play with Blind Willie Johnson. And his wife Ruby was at the session and added her comments. So that the image that one has of the patronizing Lomax and other aspects Gray argues is misleading because of what was omitted.
Despite Gray including his own journey of visiting where McTell lived, walking the dusty country roads McTell walked, and visiting the buildings where McTell recorded and played, the book is still about McTell. Michael Gray has enriched us with Blind Willie McTell’s story and the legacy, and it’s a story well worth reading.
For purposes of FTC regulations, this review was originally published in the Jazz& Blues Report 2009 Gift Guide (www.jazz-blues.com). The publisher or a publicity firm sent me the review copy.