Blind Willie McTell (1983) – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan 1983

Bob Dylan 1983

Bob Dylan has such a vast song catalogue he decided to leave a dizzying array of excellent songs off his records. We have showcased some of these before one including Abandoned Love – Is this Dylan’s saddest song?  That must take a lot of discipline and foresightedness to not include a great song because it didn’t align with your vision of a studio album release. Thankfully due to the bootleg release volumes many of these unreleased recordings were brought back to life much to the delight of eager fans. One song officially released only in 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 which created some of the biggest fanfare was today’s song – Blind Willie McTell. And believe me there was a lot to be excited about in that Bootleg series release.

Blind Willie McTell was recorded in the spring of 1983, during the sessions for Dylan’s album Infidels, but was left off the album. It boggles the senses how he could just let it go, but it is now considered one of Dylan’s most cherished songs. For instance, Blind Willie McTell was voted equal 4th favourite song by Dylan enthusiasts at the Expecting Rain community.

As stated in song factsThe song’s title refers to Piedmont blues singer Blind Willie McTell, real name William Samuel McTier. In 1991 Dylan told Eliot Mintz that McTell was probably the “Van Gogh of the country blues.”…The song’s melody is loosely based on “Saint James Infirmary Blues,” a song Blind Willie McTell covered in 1940. This is also probably the reason for the line, “I’m gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel.” …For all the high esteem in which Dylan fans hold this song, the artist himself seems less enamored. He claims he can’t even remember why he chose to leave it off of Infidels, shrugging it off as “most likely a demo.”

What always struck me about the song from the get-go and how you could distinguish it instrumentally from a lot of what he’s done, is that Blind Willie McTell is a climactic piano piece. Dylan was seated at the piano and Mark Knophler on the acoustic guitar. Now if that isn’t a music match made in heaven! Of course Knophler also played guitar on Dylan’s wonderful Christian album Slow Train Coming and often introduced for Dylan shows. According to wikipedia: it sings a series of plaintive verses depicting allegorical scenes which reflect on the history of American music and slavery…. “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.

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 the 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

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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Posted in Music
3 comments on “Blind Willie McTell (1983) – Bob Dylan
  1. badfinger20 says:

    The music is more polished on this one. It’s hard to explain…not polish in a slick way but more than usual for Dylan. Very good song and lyrics.

    • For mine, in terms of it’s production it seems fairly raw and rudimentary, but as the song progresses he ups the pounding of chords on the piano like he’s leading us to a final proclamation – then there’s this:

      ‘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
      I’m gazing out the window
      Of the St. James Hotel
      And I know no one can sing the blues
      Like Blind Willie McTell’

      Sometimes listening to Dylan is in it’s own way is a form of time travel, at least from my perspective. When he’s singing about a different epoch like he is here, it has the affect of immersing the listener in that time and place. That’s what sets him apart I guess.

  2. You mentioned the Band’s version. I dig that one also.

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