A chance encounter with Blind Willie McTell

While in medical school at Emory University in Atlanta, I discovered a blind guitarist named Blind Willie McTell, who played at a drive-in near my rental apartment.

He was an interesting singer who played a 12-string guitar, the first I’d ever seen and heard. I was intrigued by this man because of many reasons. For example, how does a blind man navigate to the various cars at the drive-in to find willing customers for his vocal and guitar performance? The answer: His walking stick was metal-tipped. His tap-tap with the cane both helped him locate the parked autos and advertised his availability for hire. He would sing and play your requests for tips, a drink, or both.

So, my pattern would be to study until about 10 p.m. and then drive to the nearby Blue Lantern Tavern on Piedmont Avenue. I’d then hear Willie’s tap-tap and invite him to play and sing for me. Normally, he would stand by the car window and sing for tips. As I got to know him better and request a longer session, I’d open the rear car door so that he could sit with his feet on the pavement; this being satisfactory to accommodate him and his large 12-string guitar. For a session such as this, I’d buy him a beer in addition to the usual tip. He had an unusually large repertoire of songs. He’d composed Statesboro Blues, a lament about Statesboro, Ga., where he spent time while growing up. A favorite song of mine was Talkin’ Blues. This had been recorded by many but, as far as I can determine, not by Willie. I’d take notes when he performed this because he’d added verses I’d never heard.

I related my discovery of the blind 12-string guitarist to my uncle, Dr. Frank Norman Gibson of Thomson, Ga. He had also attended Emory Medical School in the 1930s and he had heard him in that era when he was performing at the Pig ‘n Whistle drive-in (opened in 1927 and operated continuously until the 1960s). At that time in the ‘30s, he was performing as Pig ‘n Whistle Red.

Over the two year period (’54-’56) in which I’d listen to him perform for 15 to 30 minute intervals about twice weekly, there was not much time to take a detailed “medical history” but we did talk about his travels. He had performed along the eastern seaboard and had spent a short time in New York. There was never mention that he had recorded on various occasions. In the early days of recording, equipment wasn’t so elaborate that it required a studio. Many field recordings were made by putting the equipment on a truck and going to the folk-artist instead of vice-versa.

My next revelation about Blind Willie came when I was visiting a jazz museum in New Orleans. Part of my medical training was on Tulane service at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital (’59-’61). In going through a stack of LPs, I found an album with Willie’s photo on the cover. It was astounding, because in our meetings over a two year period, no mention was ever made of his having recorded anything. Then some further research uncovered a number of recordings from the late ‘20s until 1956. So I saw him in the last good year he had. He died in 1959 of diabetes and dementia.

The last phase of research on Blind Willie came when I discovered a biography by Michael Gray entitled “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes; In Search of Blind Willie McTell.” This was published by Chicago Review Press © 2007. In that book, Gray covered areas from his birth in Happy Valley, Georgia, to his time in Statesboro, his attending blind school, two locations, including the same school attended by vocalist-pianist Ray Charles. Willie was recorded in Atlanta in the 1940s by folklorist Alan Lomax.

It turns out that Willie and my mother were born just before the turn of the century—1898, she in Thomson, Georgia, and Willie in Happy Valley, a rural area near Thomson. It is unlikely that they ever met as Willie moved with his mother to Statesboro during his youth.

I wrote Gray and briefly outlined my encounters with Willie and offered to speak with him should he desire. The author called me from a vacation spot in France. He was able to fill in some of my areas of interest and, he was interested in hearing from someone who had seen and heard Willie. Gray asked about Willie’s appearance, dress and speech. His speech was articulate and more refined than the average man of his age and background. We both agreed that it was likely that this influence was from his attendance at blind schools, giving him a better education than average.

For the person who is interested further, there are a number of YouTube offerings that will give an appreciation of his vocal and guitar skills. A number of rock artists who have recorded his songs, notably the Allman Brothers Band which recorded Statesboro Blues and Bob Dylan recorded a 1983 song Blind Willie McTell. Also, one may get an overview from the Wikipedia section on Blind Willie.

Thomson, Georgia, has an annual music festival related to McTell.