“Blind Willie” McTell was one of the great blues musicians of the 1920s and 1930s. Displaying an extraordinary range on the twelve-string guitar, this Atlanta-based musician recorded more than 120 titles during fourteen recording sessions. His voice was soft and expressive, and his musical tastes were influenced by southern blues, ragtime, gospel, hillbilly, and popular music.
At a time when most blues musicians were poorly educated and rarely traveled, McTell was an exception. He could read and write music in Braille. He traveled often from Atlanta to New York City, frequently alone. As a person faced with a physical disability and social inequities, he expressed in his music a strong confidence in dealing with the everyday world.
McTell was born in Thomson on May 5, 1898. Few facts are known about his early life. Even his name is uncertain: his family name was either McTear or McTier, and his first name may have been Willie, Samuel, or Eddie. His tombstone reads “Eddie McTier.” He was blind either from birth or from early childhood, and he attended schools for the blind in Georgia, New York, and Michigan.
While in his early teens, McTell learned to play the guitar from his mother, relatives, and neighbors in Statesboro, where his family had moved. In his teenage years, after his mother’s death, he left home and toured in carnivals and medicine shows. In the 1920s and 1930s, McTell traveled a circuit between Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah, and Macon. This region encompasses two major blues styles: Eastern Seaboard/Piedmont, with lighter, bouncier rhythms and a ragtime influence; and Deep South, with its greater emphasis on intense rhythms and short, repeated music phrases.
McTell also journeyed from Georgia to New York City. Along the way he entertained wherever he could find an audience: passenger train cars, hotel lobbies, college fraternity parties, school assemblies, proms, vaudeville theaters, and churches. As he followed the tobacco market from Georgia into North Carolina, he played for farmers, buyers, and merchants at warehouses, auctions, livery stables, and hotels.
By the mid-1920s McTell was already an accomplished musician in Atlanta, playing at house parties and fish fries. He had also traded in the standard six-string acoustic guitar for a twelve-string guitar, which was popular among Atlanta musicians because of the extra volume it provided for playing on city streets.
By 1926 record companies had begun to take an interest in recording folk blues artists, mostly men playing solo with guitars—Blind Lemon Jefferson from Texas, Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson from Mississippi, Peg Leg Howell and Blind Willie McTell from Georgia. Beginning with his first recording in 1927 for Victor Records and his 1928 recording session for Columbia, McTell produced such blues classics as “Statesboro Blues” (later made famous by the Allman Brothers Band and Taj Mahal), “Mama ‘Tain’t Long ‘for’ Day,” and “Georgia Rag.” In 1929 he recorded “Broke Down Engine Blues.”
Like other musicians at the time, he recorded on different labels under various nicknames to skirt contractual agreements. Thus he was Blind Willie for Vocalion, Georgia Bill for OKeh, Red Hot Willie Glaze for Bluebird, Blind Sammie for Columbia, Barrel House Sammy for Atlantic, and Pig ‘n’ Whistle Red for Regal Records. The latter name came from a popular drive-in barbecue restaurant in Atlanta where he played for tips.
In the early 1930s McTell frequently played with Blind Lemon Jefferson throughout the South. He married Ruth Kate Williams, with whom he recorded some duets, in 1934. In 1940 folk-song collector John Lomax recorded the versatile musician for the Archive of Folk Culture of the Library of Congress. These sessions, which have been issued in full, feature interviews as well as a variety of music.
McTell was the only bluesman to remain active in Atlanta until well after World War II (1941-45). With his longtime associate Curley Weaver, he played for tips on Atlanta’s Decatur Street, a popular hangout for local blues musicians. His last recording was made in 1956 for an Atlanta record-store owner and released on the Prestige/Bluesville label. Afterward he played exclusively religious music. From 1957 to his death he was active as a preacher at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage on August 19, 1959, at the Milledgeville State Hospital.