Blind Willie McTell
William Samuel McTier (McTear) was born in Thomson, Georgia on May 5, 1898, though some researchers contend that he was born in 1903, and his headstone gives the year of 1901. I have yet to find a source on how he became known as McTell. It is also unclear if young Willie was born blind or lost his sight during childhood. The New Georgia Encyclopedia indicates McTell attended schools for the blind in Georgia, New York, and Michigan.
While in his teens, McTell and his mother moved to Statesboro, GA, and it was here where Willie learned to play the six-string guitar.
By the 1920s, McTell had left the family home, taking to the road as a traveling musician, playing carnivals, bars, parties, churches, and street corners to earn a living.
Young and talented, McTell became popular in Atlanta, regularly playing at house parties and similar events. By this time, he had upped his game to the twelve-string guitar, an instrument that helped him project his music better in the crowded areas he often played.
By 1927, recording companies had noticed McTell and other blues musicians and he cut his first tracks for Victor Records, following that with a 1928 session for Columbia. The New Georgia Encyclopedia lists multiple studios that McTell recorded for, often under different names. Musicians of the era would often record under similar, but different, names in order to avoid contract conflicts.
McTell was wed to Ruth Kate Williams in 1934. They were to later record several tracks together.
John A. Lomax recorded McTell as a part of the Archive of American Folk Song in 1940. These recordings, held by the Library of Congress, have been released under the title The Complete Library of Congress Recordings.
Commercially, McTell’s sales were declining during the 40s, and he found himself playing more on the streets. He did record for Atlantic Records in 1949 and Regal Records the same year. His final known recordings were made in 1956 by Atlanta record store owner Edward Rhodes.
Starting in 1957, McTell served as the preacher at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta and devoted himself to religious music. Blind Willie was to only live a short time longer and passed away on August 19, 1959, due to a cerebral hemorrhage. McTell is buried in Jones Grove Baptist Church Cemetery in Thomson, Georgia.
McTell’s 12-String Strut
Located in the downtown Thomson, GA area is a public art exhibit titled McTell’s 12-String Strut, honoring the locally born Blind Willie McTell. There are twelve, seven-foot-tall Stella guitars in the installation, each painted by a different artist. The guitar models were created by Icon Poly Studio and are made of polyurethane.
The installation was presented to the public in 2016 after a Georgia Department of Economic Development report suggested a public art component and providing additional exposure for one of McDuffie Counties most recognized citizens as part of the county’s tourism marketing efforts.
Below, find images of 6 of the 12 guitars that are located throughout Thomson. 11 of these are very easy to find. The 12th however took a bit more digging. It is located outside the McDuffie County Government complex.
In 1993, a Georgia Historic Marker was unveiled in Thomson, GA,, near the old railroad station, honoring McTell and his legacy. The text (including a few small grammatical errors) reads as follows
Willie Samuel McTear (1901-1959) was born between Big and Little Briar Creeks in the Happy Valley Community. In 1911, he and his mother moved to Statesboro, where he began his life of traveling and performing. Although blind from infancy, Willie developed a lifelong independence based on his acute sense of hearing., remarkable memory and versatile musical genius.
Willie performed and recorded under many names but favored “Blind Willie” McTell. Best remembered for his blues, McTell, had a remarkable repertoire of blues, spirituals, gospels, rags, fold ballads and popular music. McTell played from “Maine to Mobile Bay”, and at theaters, taverns, road houses, churches, medicine shows, train stations, barbecue joints, house parties, and on the streets.
His blues feature his trademark twelve-string guitar played in rapid and intricate patterns of jagged, shifting rhythms accompanying his clear tenor voice. He started recording in 1927 for RCA Victor Atlantic and the Library of Congress. He last recorded in 1956 and returned to McDuffie County shortly before his death and is buried in the Jones Grove Cemetery. Blind Willie was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990.
McTell has also played a considerable influence on musicians after him. Performers as diverse as Taj Mahal, the Allman Brothers Band, Ry Cooder, Jack White, and Bob Dylan have covered his songs or singled out the blind guitar player for his influence on their careers.
Do you want to learn to play 12-string guitar? Or maybe you are looking to upgrade your equipment. The unmistakable sound of a well-made 12-string guitar is perfect for solo gigs and band performances, especially when it was designed by the founder of influential U.S. punk band Rancid. Tim Armstrong’s Hellcat is based on the old Fender acoustic that was his go-to guitar for songwriting, and quickly became one of the best-selling Fender acoustic artist models ever. With the Tim Armstrong Hellcat-12, that same classic vibe is offered in a 12-string version that simply rocks. Whether it’s alt-folk tunes at the college coffeehouse or slamming punk with a band, the Hellcat-12 combines great acoustic tone with versatile onboard electronics and a satin body and neck finish for smooth playability, all at a surprisingly low cost.
Blind Willie McTell Music Festival
The legacy of McTell is celebrated each year at the Blind Willie McTell Music Festival held in Thomson, GA. Ticket prices for the event seem quite reasonable. The lineup for 2022 included Jimmie Vaughn, the Texas Gentlemen, Joachim Cooder (son of the legendary Ry Cooder), and more. For more information on the festival check their website.
Burditt, Erin. “Guitars are Back.” The McDuffie Progress. April 13, 2021.
Jacobs, Hal. ““Blind Willie” McTell.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Jun 1, 2020.
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The Rough Guide to Blind Willie McTell is an excellent introduction to the genius that poured from his fingers. It contains 25 key tracks including some of his best known such as Statesboro Blues. Little of the life of McTell is really known and there is no full length biography. To learn more about southern blues I recommend a copy of Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast. Drawing on archives and interviews with musicians, Red River Blues remains an acclaimed work of blues scholarship. Bruce Bastin traces the origins of the music to the turn of the twentieth century, when African Americans rejected slave songs, work songs, and minstrel music in favor of a potent new vehicle for secular musical expression. Bastin looks at the blues’ early emerging popularity and its spread via the Great Migration, delves into a wealth of field recordings, and looks at the careers of Brownie McGhee, Blind Boy Fuller, Curly Weaver, Sonny Terry, and many other foundational artists.
The Blues Fake Book
from: The Music Stand
The most comprehensive single-volume blues publication ever, with songs spanning the entire history of the genre. Every major blues artist is well-represented, including Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Billie Holiday, Leadbelly, Alberta Hunter, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bessie Smith, Sonny Boy Williamson, and scores of others.