August 19, 1959 – Blind Willie McTell was born William Samuel McTier on May 5th 1898 in Thomson, Georgia. Few facts are known about his early life. Even his name is uncertain: his family name was either McTear or McTier, and his first name may have been Willie, Samuel, or Eddie. His tombstone reads “Eddie McTier.” He was blind either from birth or from early childhood, and he attended schools for the blind in Georgia, New York, and Michigan.
While in his early teens, McTell learned to play the guitar from his mother, relatives, and neighbors in Statesboro, where his family had moved. In his teenage years, after his mother’s death, he left home and toured in carnivals and medicine shows. In the 1920s and 1930s McTell traveled a circuit between Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah, and Macon. This region encompasses two major blues styles: Eastern Seaboard/Piedmont, with lighter, bouncier rhythms and a ragtime influence; and Deep South, with its greater emphasis on intense rhythms and short, repeated music phrases.He first recorded in 1927 for Victor Records. McTell traveled a circuit that included Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah, and Macon during the 1920s and 1930s.
By the mid-1920s McTell was already an accomplished musician in Atlanta, playing at house parties and fish fries. He had also traded in the standard six-string acoustic guitar for a twelve-string guitar, which was popular among Atlanta musicians because of the extra volume it provided for playing on city streets. By 1926 record companies had begun to take an interest in recording folk blues artists, mostly men playing solo with guitars—Blind Lemon Jefferson from Texas, Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson from Mississippi, and Peg Leg Howell from Georgia. Beginning with his first recording in 1927 for Victor Records and his 1928 recording session for Columbia, McTell produced such blues classics as “Statesboro Blues” (later made famous by the Allman Brothers Band and Taj Mahal), “Mama ‘Tain’t Long ‘for’ Day,” and “Georgia Rag.” In 1929 he recorded “Broke Down Engine Blues.”
Like other musicians at the time, he recorded on different labels under various nicknames to skirt contractual agreements. Thus he was Blind Willie for Vocalion, Georgia Bill for OKeh, Red Hot Willie Glaze for Bluebird, Blind Sammie for Columbia, Barrel House Sammy for Atlantic, and Pig ‘n’ Whistle Red for Regal Records. The latter name came from a popular drive-in barbecue restaurant in Atlanta where he played for tips.
He also journeyed from Georgia to New York City. Along the way he entertained wherever he could find an audience: passenger train cars, hotel lobbies, college fraternity parties, school assemblies, proms, vaudeville theaters, and churches. As he followed the tobacco market from Georgia into North Carolina, he played for farmers, buyers, and merchants at warehouses, auctions, livery stables, and hotels. In 1934 McTell married Ruth Kate Williams, with whom he recorded some duets.
Displaying an extraordinary range on the twelve-string guitar, this Atlanta-based musician recorded more than 120 titles during fourteen recording sessions. His voice was soft and expressive, and his musical tastes were influenced by southern blues, ragtime, gospel, hillbilly, and popular music. At a time when most blues musicians were poorly educated and rarely traveled, McTell was an exception. He could read and write music in Braille. He traveled often from Atlanta to New York City, frequently alone. As a person faced with a physical disability and social inequities, he expressed in his music a strong confidence in dealing with the everyday world.
In 1941, he was recorded by the folklorist John A. Lomax and Ruby Terrill Lomax for the Archive of Folk Culture of the Library of Congress.
He was active in the 1940s and 1950s, playing on the streets of Atlanta, often with his longtime associate Curley Weaver. the versatile musician for These sessions, which have been issued in full, feature interviews as well as a variety of music. McTell was the only bluesman to remain active in Atlanta until well after World War II (1941-45). With his longtime associate Curley Weaver, he played for tips on Atlanta’s Decatur Street, a popular hangout for local blues musicians. His last recording was made in 1956 for an Atlanta record-store owner and released on the Prestige/Bluesville label.
Despite his lack of commercial success, he was one of the few blues musicians of his generation who continued to actively play and record during the 1940s and 1950s. He did not live to see the American folk music revival, in which many other bluesmen were “rediscovered.”
Afterward he played exclusively religious music. From 1957 to his death he was active as a preacher at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage on August 19, 1959, at the Milledgeville State Hospital (later Central State Hospital) at the alleged age of 61.
In 1981 Blind Willie McTell was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame. Two years later, folksinger Bob Dylan paid homage to McTell in his song “Blind Willie McTell”: “And I know no one can sing the blues / Like Blind Willie McTell.” In 1990 McTell was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Each year, the city of Thomson hosts the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival in honor of their hometown legend.
McTell’s influence extended over a wide variety of artists, including the Allman Brothers Band, who covered his “Statesboro Blues,” and Bob Dylan, who paid tribute to him in his 1983 song “Blind Willie McTell,” the refrain of which is “And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” Other artists influenced by McTell include Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Ralph McTell, Chris Smither, Jack White, and the White Stripes.
A blues festival is held annually in his birthplace, Thomson, Georgia in honor of him.