Blind Willie McTell by Bob Dylan: A Review
It is difficult to think of a greater gift that Dylan has given us than the way he handles the opening piano chords of “Blind Willie McTell”. They are, of course,the melody of “The Saint James Hotel Infirmary Blues”, given a fresh suit and new shoes by Bob here. 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 it’s end. “Blind Willie McTell” is one of his indifferent miracles, the kind of thing that he jots down in ten minutes, records and forgets about and moves on as we are stunned into muttering clichés 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 driving wind. Everything in that grainy sepia of 19thcentury photos. When we hear him proclaim “this land is condemned” we wonder if he means the entire country. Then he sets the pilgrim’s journey, “from New Orleans to Jerusalem”. From sin to salvation. He identifies himself as a fellow pilgrim, a traveler, putting 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 this knowledge alone will bring redemption if repeated often enough, everything hinging on Blind Willie’s prowess with the blues. He knows that the blues is a healer, a balm to the soul, but he also knows it is the devil’s music. In the song we travel with him on pilgrimage, bearing witness to a fallen world, seeing 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 judgment, simply as testament. He is not aloof and removed, but present and reverent. Where once he would have taken shelter in smugness he now stands with us, as unsure as anyone else if he will withstand temptation. There is no shelter in the song, no where to hide.
Blind Willie McTell lays like a pearl among the bootleg tracks, making the rest seem inferior simply by it’s presence. It is for surprises like this that we keep listening to Dylan. Every now and then he works his magic and amazes us. If asked about it in an interview he would no doubt dismiss all the fuss and call it “just another song”. It always seems like Dylan’s music is orphaned once he has created it, he rarely mentions it, let alone give any background information on how it came to be. Sometimes one wishes that he leaned a bit more towards Springsteens’ verbosity instead of his eternal impersonation of a sphinx. It could be that he is as mystified by his gift as we are, but he certainly isn’t going to tell us that any time soon.
Journalists learned early on that interviewing him was a thankless task.Every nuance of Dylan’s tale is important, from the plantations burning to the undertaker’s bell, each part contributing to the whole. Where he once painted so boldly on such a broad canvas, literally swamping us with lyrical imagery, he now works in pen and ink, each mark finely scratched upon the page, the result a master stroke of restraint. We continue on with Dylan and find ourselves at the St. James hotel as he details the order of creation and the disappointment of being human, seeing man controlled by his limitations. Unlike so many blues singers, he has struck no Faustian bargain that we can tell. As to the state of Blind Willie’s soul, we are offered not a clue. We are left with Dylan in this fallen world, listening hopefully to hear Blind Willie’s guitar. Where his older songs often begged for absolutes and resolutions, this song seems content that some things are what they are and do not change. Blind Willie McTellis a gift, a fully realized bit of heaven that is very, very human, created by a master’s hand.