Michael Gray, whose place as the most valuable and readable Bob Dylan scholar is already secure, is finally publishing his long awaited book about Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell. The U.K. edition is coming out shortly, and Gray has launched a blog to support the book and will presumably be adding more information — such as when an American edition is forthcoming.
Who was Blind Willie McTell? You may not recognize the name, but if you like classic rock and roll you will undoubtedly recognize “Statesboro Blues” from The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, and if you like the White Stripes you’ve probably heard their cover of “Lord Send Me An Angel,” a concert staple. But unless you were an old-school blues aficionado to start with, chances are you first heard of him through Bob Dylan’s song “Blind Willie McTell,” the unreleased masterpiece from the 1980s that finally reached the public through The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3. That song in turn inspired a lengthy essay in Michael Gray’s magisterial study of Dylan’s work, Song and Dance Man, that left one wishing Gray would continue his delvings into McTell’s intriguing and surprising career. Well, now we can add that wish to the small but valuable pile of wishes that come true.
Who is Michael Gray? The ideal blend of scholar and enthusiast, a Dylan fan who can tell the tripe from the treasures, a music writer who favors concrete detail and solid research to the opaque rambling of someone like Greil Marcus, whose articles can seem like put-ons as elaborate as anything staged by Dylan himself.
When Gray’s most recent book, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, came out last summer I happily sang its praises, and scarcely a week has gone by that hasn’t seen me dipping into it again for information, insight or simple enjoyment. So the news of Gray’s work on Blind Willie McTell leaves me with only one question: Do I pay the freight to get the U.K. edition right now, or do I wait for an American edition?
Actually, I already know the answer to that question.