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Book Review: Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell by Michael Gray

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Michael Gray’s Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes is subtitled In Search Of Blind Willie McTell. By no means mere biography, it is, instead, a fascinating and often elagaic tale of his quest for information about the Georgia-born bluesman.

Blind Willie McTell is a somewhat marginal figure in the history of the blues, best remembered as the composer of "Statesboro Blues", a tune turned into a monster hit by The Allman Brothers during an early incarnation of the band. Apart from select re-issues, little of his output remains in circulation today, and while its potency remains undiminished, his brand of country blues has long since fallen from fashion.

But McTell (no one's entirely sure if he was blind from birth or not) was an exceptionally accomplished musician — this much we know from what remains of an extensive discography — adept at the relatively rare (in those days) 12-string guitar, and equally at home with blues, gospel, and pretty much any other form of popular music. And by all accounts, he was also a well-liked and widely respected man, also a relatively rare condition for musicians in his time. Possessed of an uncanny ability to find his way around, McTell was an eternally cheerful and surprisingly independent traveller, able to negotiate a rapidly-changing Atlanta, his home base for much of his career, with unerring ease.

Of course there's a great deal of biographical information here, and Gray proves a careful and conscientious researcher with an obvious affection for McTell. With dogged persistence, he traces McTell's life through interviews and old documents. He uncovers much new information and gently corrects some common misconceptions based on earlier research. It's the kind of stuff that's often dry and dusty, but Gray, who hails from England, brings the quest to life with lively commentary and an outsider's wonder at the peculiarities — both good and bad — of the South.

Gray paints a powerful picture of the social conditions that shaped McTell's world, but reveals even more about the South of today through sharp observations and richly detailed descriptions of its people and places. His search uncovers monstrous ineptitude and indifference in official records, and ends with a chilling encounter with security as he tries to take a picture of the lunatic-asylum-cum-hospital, now a federal prison, where McTell spent his final days. But he's equally quick to praise the warmth and generosity of the majority of the people he encounters – albeit often after initial suspicions have been allayed. His own engaging personality comes through as much as Willie's, and his evocative prose brings the South, from its genteel good manners to its shameful racial past, to vivid life.

McTell (the name he's known by, though Gray's research reveals a whopping 17 different variations and spellings) would no doubt be surprised by the continued attention to his work. Though possessed of a quiet but unflinching self-assurance, he was a humble man, dying penniless and alone in 1959, missing out on the blues revival that might well have seen his final years filled with acclaim. Still, he's not forgotten, and Gray's book is a lovely and fitting epitaph to a fine musician and man. As Bob Dylan wrote in his titular song, "Nobody can sing the blues / Like Blind WIllie McTell."

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