Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Blind Boy Grunt Met Blind Willie McTell

Any rock music fan who was around for the Sixties and Seventies and Eighties probably has a favorite Bob Dylan song. I heard "Song to Woody" on a Chicago radio show in early 1962, and was hooked on Bob forever, through thick, thin, and the impossibly arcane or silly. His debut album was its own challenge, with the artist presenting himself (like the songs he chose) as an odd mix of aspiring white bloozer, Guthrie folk-protest novice, Chaplinesque hobo/poet/clown, bashful teenager, and rockabilly punk. He also soon used the pseudonym "Blind Boy Grunt" on some other early recordings, partly as a hip joke, but with a nod to all the blues predecessors too.

As Dylan's career gathered steam, many of his best songs weren't officially issued by Columbia Records but only showed up on the amazing series of Bob bootlegs (expansive but not expensive, and not seen as a threat to record companies back in those halcyon days), starting with the two-LP set usually identified as Great White Wonder. Favorite titles discovered on the boots immediately included "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," "I'll Keep It with Mine," "Percy's Song," "Tears of Rage," "I Shall Be Released," "Walls of Red Wing"... Brilliant gems, each one, and there were many more, Dylan was so prolific during those years; he'd just write 'em and demo 'em for others to consider, and then move on to the next tune.

Now, in the 21st century, his abundant songwriting continues unabated behind the scenes, and once in a while an unissued, unknown number surfaces still, but by popular acclaim and bemused wonder the supreme masterpiece among all of his once-unheard works (at least until some other newly discovered song displaces it) was recorded back during the Spring 1983 sessions for the Infidels album, but then blithely omitted. A perfect marriage of blues and rock and surreal singer-songwriter story, "Blind Willie McTell" is Dylan's terrific, somewhat indirect tribute to Georgia's great blind bluesman, a singer of agile voice and mellifluous fingers (and vice versa), known for "Broke Down Engine," "Statesboro Blues," "Mama, Tain't Long Fo' Day," "Travelin' Blues," "Southern Can Is Mine," "Searching the Desert for the Blues," "Razor Ball," and a hundred other classic 78s.

The song was only a rumor to most Dylan fans until the release of 1991's three-CD longbox, longwindedly titled Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. That superb series is now up to Vol. 8, with many more to come (one hopes), and there are splendors and surprises on each volume, but Bob's heartfelt homage to McTell--which also subsumes a condemnation of race relations in America and a crafty disclaimer of his own meagre performance skills--remains unique and unchallenged.

Even the instrumental parts are more polished than is usual on a Dylan album. The musicians for the sessions included co-producer and guitarist Mark Knopfler, ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor too, crack Jamaican rhythm kings Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and Dylan himself occasionally playing his patented, precisely measured, semi-whorehouse piano. The six-minute "Blind Willie McTell" take issued in 1991 features that piano lead throughout, with a steady rocking rhythm, and subtle finger-picking by Knopfler, plus Bob sounding plaintive and impassioned, openly staking his own claim to vocal blues mastery.

But at least one other version of the song exists, circulating on an unofficial bootleg of Infidels outtakes; it plays less than five minutes, with Bob singing more quickly, sounding less confident, or his character possibly more beaten down by circumstance... till he pulls out his harmonica for a fine brief solo that becomes a duet with the guitar, Knopfler this time up in the mix playing sharp-edged slide-guitar licks throughout. The whomp of the drums, the sting of the slide, and Bob's crying harp make for a more driven reading perhaps--call it a rhythm 'n' blues performance--but his vocal is less assured and less mournfully soulful.

Whichever one prefers, both takes are winners (one merely perfect, the other imperfect but compelling), and both deliver Dylan's dark message of injustices, the apocalyptic lyrics almost a return to his social consciousness songs of the early Sixties. Here's a sampling of the lines:

See the arrow on the doorpost,
Sayin' "This land is condemned,
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem."
I've traveled through EastTexas,
Where many martyrs fell,
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell...

See them big plantations burnin',
Hear the crackin' of the whips,
Smell that sweet magnolia bloomin',
See the ghost of slavery's ships...

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 gazin' out the window
Of that old St. James Hotel,
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell...

Well, for a restless Jewish kid from Northern Minnesota, Dylan fakes it pretty good, in a career that's lasted almost 50 years now, with hundreds of remarkable songs written--then sung, sealed, and something... always delivered.

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