Blind Willie McTell by Bob Dylan: A Review
It is hard to imagine a greater gift that Dylan has given us than the opening piano chords
ofBlind Willie McTell. They are, of course, the melody of The Saint James Hotel Infirmary
Blues given a fresh suit and a new pair of shoes here by Bob. In his hands they do what all
great and timeless music does, sound fresh, alive and vital. They are both sparse and pregnant
with import, telling us more in what we don’t hear than in what we do. Dylan sets the mood
instantly, his voice riding the melody with his usual concern and detachment. He escorts the
song gracefully through to its’ end. Blind Willie McTellis one of Dylans’ indifferent master
works, the kind of thing he jots down in ten minutes, records and forgets about and moves on
as we are left stunned into muttering cliches at the result. There are some things in music
that defy comment, this song is very close to that. We hear Dylan striding confidently through
and imagine him once again as The Witness, all in black, on horseback, dust blown by a fierce
and howling wind. Everything colored in that grainy sepia of 19th century photographs. When
we hear him proclaim “this land is condemned” we truly wonder if he means the entire country.
Then he sets the pilgrims’ journey, “From News Orleans to Jerusalem”. From sin to salvation.
He identifies himself as a fellow pilgrim, a traveler, leaving flowers on the graves of the faithful.
He sings of Blind Willie in the chorus, sings of him like a nun handles the rosary. As if the
very sound of his name might bring redemption if repeated often enough, everything hinging on
Blind Willies’ prowess with the blues. He know the blues is a healer, a balm to the soul. But he
also knows that it is the devil’s music. We travel with him on pilgrimage, bearing witness to a
fallen world. We see storm lit images taken from field hollars and New Orleans funeral marches
, Texas Klan raids and tent revivals. We feel the burn of bootleg whiskey, see the awful beauty
of temptation and the breaking of one set of chains only traded for another. Dylan is able to allow
the song to carry all of this because it is not offered as judgement, simply as testament. He is not
aloof and removed, but present and reverent. Where once he would have retreated into satire
he now stands with us, as unsure as anyone else if he will be able to withstand temptation. There
is no shelter in the song, no where to hide.
Blind Willie McTell lays like a pearl among the bootleg sessions, making the rest seem inferior
simply by its’ presense. It is for surprises like this that we keep listening to Dylan. Every now
and then he works his magic and amazes us. If he were asked about