Blind Willie McTell

Date:    Wed, 28 Feb 1996 21:34:00 -0700
From:    glynne walley (walleytg@COUGARNET.BYU.EDU)
Subject: Blind Willie McTell (long)

Hi, folks.  Let's talk about Blind Willie McTell.  I've been thinking about
this song a lot lately, and I've got some questions, and maybe a couple of
ideas.  Tell me what you think.

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Sayin' this land is condemned
All the way from New Orlean
To Jerusalem
I travelled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know noone can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

--First of all, what's the arrow on the doorpost?  I seem to remember
hearing somewhere that stations on the Underground Railroad would paint
arrows on their doorposts as secret identification to runaway slaves, but
I've tried to confirm this in the local library with no success, so I could
be completely imagining it.  It would fit in real nice with slavery
references later.  Putting signs on doorposts obviously ties in with the
blood of lambs on the Israelites' doors (they were slaves, too) in Egypt, a
land that, like the slaveholding South, was condemned.

--Also, what's significant about East Texas?  I think he's comparing the
South to the Holy Land, dead slaves (?) being equated to religious martyrs,
all of which leads to Blind Willie McTell--in the song he's not only a blues
singer par excellance, but maybe something of a prophet as well.  Blues
singer as prophet--the only one able to fully express the horror and despair
of what man is doing to man.  But why East Texas in particular?  McTell was
from Atlanta, wasn't he, so it's not a reference to his stomping grounds. . .

Well I heard that hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Was his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell

--Tents.  Circus?  Maybe a revival meeting, maybe a minstrel show?  Maybe
both (didn't one usually follow the other, after the kids went to bed?).
But in either case the owl is the one who really has something to say, and
nobody's listening--even the trees, his audience, are barren and desolate.
Parallel between the owl and a prophet no one listens to, and with McTell.
The choice of McTell is significant here, I think, in part because he's not
one of the most famous of bluesmen.  I mean, he's well-known in blues
circles, and now among Dylan fans, but your average American, who may have
heard of John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, etc., chances are
doesn't know McTell.  I think Bob's suggesting that not only is the bluesman
a prophet, but he's an unheeded one, like the owl.

--The gypsy maidens.  If the tents are from a minstrel show/juke joint type
of scene, then these would be the dancers.  "Strut their feathers well" is a
wonderfully evocative image of sassy, erotic dancing, I take it, and maybe
he also means that they were using feather boas like you see in old movies.
And their dancing, too, in this context, is likely meant to express a
certain desperation, a certain longing (lust being a hallowed component of
even the most philosophical of blues), but even so, McTell expresses it better.

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes moaning
Hear that undertaker's bell
Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell

--This verse seems to kaleidoscope the whole history of American slavery
into one series of vivid images.  The plantations burning is the apocalyptic
end of the institution of slavery in the Civil War.  The cracking of the
whips, though, contrasted to the sweet magnolia blooming, is the long period
when slavery was practiced, to support the genteel society of the South.
The slavery ships need no explanation, but the fact that they're ghosts is
significant:  not only does this underscore the deadly nature of the ships,
but it brings the listener back to the present, when those ships are long
gone, but their effects still remain on American society.  Tribes moaning
takes us back to the very beginnings of slavery on the continent, when
slavers broke up tribes and families, exploiting tribal enmities and
loyalties.  The undertaker's bell casts a note of deathly finality over the
whole verse's reflections on slavery, and he concludes by once again
insisting that the only one with power to fully deliver the burden of what
has gone on (burden in the Old Testament sense of a message of prophecy) is
Blind Willie McTell.

There's a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He's dressed up like a squire
Bootleg whiskey in his hand
There's a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know noone can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell

--I think this woman and this man are what Bob elaborated on in Man in the
Long Black Coat.  The woman is by the river--a multifaceted image, as others
have pointed out--in this case I suspect it means mobility and escape.
Could have just as easily been a road.  The fine young handsome man is the
Man in the Long Black Coat--alluring, all groomed and handsome, but somehow
sinister--the bootleg whiskey.  What's she doing with him?  He's alluring
and sinister, 'nuff said.  Meanwhile, while they're trying to escape the
desperation of their lives, the world is still going to hell around
them--the chain gang (slaves?  prisoners? some kind of image of bondage) is
at work on the highway (there's the road, Mark), and the rebels (asserting
their freedom, in direct contrast to the chain gang) are trying to split up
the country.  The rebel yell, too, is an echo of the blues song--a direct
vocal expression of desperation, defiance, strong emotion.  Inspiring, but
scary if you're a slave, in chains--where in the distance are the rebels,
are they coming this way, and what have they got on their minds?

Well God is in His 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 noone can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell

--The summary.  The conclusion of the whole matter, like it says in
Ecclesiastes.  We all want Heaven--but all we can seem to find is power,
greed, and a wicked mankind.  These relate to God--God has power, although
it's not the same as man's political power to exploit;  God has riches,
although they're spiritual and not the material ones that inspire greed;
and God created man, that seed which, we find, is all too corruptible.
I.e., everybody talks about God, but their actions are just a parody of His
nature.  Case in point being all those ministers in the South who for
hundreds of years maintained that God and the Bible justified the slave economy.

--What's the St. James hotel?  I'm sure the reference is also to James in
the New Testament, but I confess I don't get exactly what he means.  This
image brings us neatly back to the present, though, where the singer is
contemplating all this evil and desperation, and realizes with a surety that
noone at all can do it justice except Blind Willie McTell.
Prophet/bluesman.  Oracles in Greece were supposed to be blind, weren't they?

--The intricate layers of irony in this song have been pointed out
elsewhere, but it doesn't hurt to repeat them in this context.  Throughout,
the singer is protesting that only McTell can really sing the blues.  But
the singer is singing.  Dylan is singing.  In one of his best songs ever
he's protesting his inability to get it right (and then very coyly not
releasing the song, protesting he never got it quite right).  And even in
the lyrics, he strictly confines himself to description, instead of the kind
of open statements the blues excell in, as if to say, I can tell you what I
see, but I can't interpret it completely for you.  Of course, telling us
exactly is poetically the greater accomplishment, because it enables us to
make the judgement for ourselves.

Comments, insights, refutations, "'s only my opinion, could be right or wrong".


But I love her just the same

Date: Fri, 1 Mar 1996 05:21:40 GMT From: Dennis J Green (dengreen@IX.NETCOM.COM) Subject: Re: Blind Willie McTell (long) ... Signs on doorposts are also left by hobos to inform other homeless travelers of "road conditions: ie where to eat, sleep, who to avoid (cops,etc.), etc. Michelle Shocked (very talented) has been into this symbolism and describes its use in her concerts. Her last album, Kind Hearted Woman cover illustration is a symbol (a cat) that hobos would place on the doorpost of a woman who was good for a meal and/or a place to sleep for the night. Michelle Shocked (aka the Arkansas Traveler) shares Dylan's want/need to be perceived as a wandering hobo musician (ala Woody Gutherie). When criticizing Society one does want to distance / transcend oneself from said society. Giving a hobo's point of view aka a rolling stone's POV has always been Dylan's favorite POV when telling a story. Quazimodem aka Dennis
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 1996 13:29:00 -0700 From: glynne walley (walleytg@COUGARNET.BYU.EDU) ... Yeah, good point, I forgot all about the hobo symbols. BTW, I was meaning to respond to some of these recent Band posts by recommending to any and all Michelle Schocked's Arkansas Traveler album as the best Band album the Band never recorded. It's a great album, mostly based on old Appalachian fiddle tunes, and more than any other album I've ever heard it has the old Band magic of combining old-as-the-hills tunes and feelings with contemporary, insightful lyrics. Levon and Garth guest on one track, too. I didn't know she had put anything out since then, Q. Thanks for the tip. --Glynne

Expecting Rain