Author: Jas Obrecht
“Among Atlanta’s early bluesmen, no one surpassed Blind Willie McTell, who had it all – a shrewd mind, insightful lyrics, astounding nimbleness on a 12-string guitar, and a sweet, plangent, and slightly nasal voice. Sensitive, confident, and hip-talking, he was a beloved figure in the various communities in which he traveled. He played sublimely, a result of both natural talent and from performing hours a day for people from all walks of life. McTell’s records reveal a phenomenal repertoire of blues, ragtime, hillbilly music, spirituals, ballads, show tunes, and original songs. His records seldom sound high-strung or harrowed, projecting instead an exuberant, upbeat personality and indomitable spirit.
Blind since infancy, Willie Samuel McTier was born in 1901 in the Georgia cottonfield country nine miles south of Thomson and 37 miles west of Augusta. His mother was Minnie Watkins, and his father has been variously identified as Eddie McTier and McTear. (Evidently Willie adapted the phonetic “McTell” spelling taught him in school.) One of McTell’s earliest remembrances was of his mother singing hymns and reading books to him. During his 1940 Library of Congress session, McTell introduced his performance of “Just As Well Get Ready, You Got to Die” by saying, “I will demonstrate how my mother and father used to wander about their work. When they used to sing those old-fashioned hymns. . . . Then you’d see ’em wanderin’ around the house, early in the mornin’, cookin’ breakfast, tryin’ to get ready to go to the fields, tryin’ to make some of the old country money. And way back in them days, I hear one my own mother singed.” Relatives described Minnie Watkins as an outstanding blues guitarist who began teaching her son 6-string guitar when he was young. McTell may have played harmonica and accordion first, and according to his first wife, Kate McTell, he was “also very good on violin, but he didn’t like it. He just loved his guitar.” When Willie was young, his father left the family.”
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