There’s a running joke for those of us who regularly listen to WTF with Marc Maron Podcast. Maron talks for an hour twice a week with comedians, actors, and musicians. The joke is the understanding that when he talks with a musician, eventually, Maron will talk about how music always comes back to the blues, maaaan. Beyond Maron’s go-to trope, he inevitably goes on to make a great point about the blues: the best and and worst thing concurrently about the blues is that anyone can do it.
That brings us to “Blind Willie McTell”, Dylan’s ode to the bluesman who was born May 5, 1898 and died August 19, 1959, just before Dylan started his professional career. McTell was a Georgia singer and guitar player who got started in the 1920s, was recorded by John Lomax, performed throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but died before the American folk revival of the 1960s. For rock audiences, he is probably best remembered by the song “Statesboro Blues”, which was first covered by the Allman Brothers Band in 1971.
Before diving into the song, let’s talk about guilt, shame, and vulnerability, about which Brene Brown has researched and talked extensively. For Brown, guilt is about behavior, whereas shame is about the self. Guilt is saying “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.” It was Brandy H. M. Brooks of Radical Solutions who first exposed me to Brene Brown’s thoughts about shame and guilt. Brooks says, “Vulnerability is the antidote to shame. When we believe our shame, we miss out on transformation and growth, on restoration and wholeness – namely for ourselves, but for others as well. Vulnerability is an act of courage, NOT an act of weakness.” Brown says that vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.
Seen them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghost of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes moaning
Hear the undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell
The last line is the refrain of the song and Dylan repeats it five times throughout. Dylan is evoking the haunted images of slavery and the blood on our hands that we have as Americans. This is not white guilt that Dylan is exploring; it is shame. The shame from the trauma that is slavery and the systemic racism that continues to be rooted deeply in this country. Dylan exhibits his vulnerability in “Blind Willie McTell” by recognizing that his success as a songwriter and fame as a performer is built on the work of bluesmen such as Blind Willie McTell who have all but been forgotten. Heck, I said above that McTell’s work is best known by being covered by a mostly-white rock band. The blues is an art form that is open to all. As Maron says: anyone can play the blues. “Blind Willie McTell” is Dylan’s beautiful acknowledgement of vulnerability to those who came before him, specifically black blues players: “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”
Dylan recorded “Blind Willie McTell” twice; once with a full band and a second time with only guitarist Mark Knopfler accompanying him on guitar while Dylan plays piano. Knopfler chooses to play a 12 string guitar perhaps as an acknowledgement that, by all research, the actual Blind Willie McTell exclusively played a 12 string guitar. The duo version is the sole recording that has been officially released. It includes some of Dylan’s best recorded piano playing. Knopfler’s guitar parts are an alluring call and response with Dylan’s piano, playing off, answering, and emphasizing when needed. The melody of “Blind Willie McTell” is based on the standard “St. James Infirmary Blues” which has been performed by every jazz band that has ever heard of the city of New Orleans. Dylan tips his hat to this adaptation by singing “I’m gazing out the window / Of the St. James Hotel.”
Dylan recorded “Blind Willie McTell” in 1983 during the sessions for Infidels, though when the album was released, he chose not to include the song. Dylan later commented that he didn’t include “Blind Willie McTell” on Infidels because “It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it.” We should take Dylan at his word, though we have learned many times that Dylan is not the most reliable source for, well, anything, let alone his own creative decisions. Perhaps the shame was too strong. Or, maybe the vulnerability of the song made him uncomfortable. Dylan eventually released “Blind Willie McTell” on 1991’s The Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3: Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991. Without that release, we would have missed this singularly powerful example of Dylan at the height of his composing and performing powers.
Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know
No one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell