Another turn in the South

Hand Me My

At the start of his book Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell, Michael Gray name-checks V.S. Naipaul’s cultural travelogue A Turn in the South, and the association is more than apt. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is not a conventional biography of Georgia’s preeminent bluesman; indeed, one of the book’s themes is the near-impossibility of writing such a book, given the nearly medieval standards of record-keeping that prevailed for American blacks in McTell’s time. The book is loaded with hard-won information and useful spadework, but Gray’s narrative is as much about the search as it is about the object. Time and again I was reminded of Naipaul’s accounts of his journeys through India and the Islamic world, and if Gray’s eye is more forgiving than Sir Vidia’s, it is no less piercing for that fact.

If McTell has a reputation outside hardcore blues circles, most of the credit goes to the Allman Brothers Band, which used McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” as a showcase for muscular musicianship, and Bob Dylan, whose song “Blind Willie McTell” — recorded in 1983 but inexplicably shelved for eight years — reminded everyone that there was more to the music than the dark, heavy blues of the Mississippi Delta.

“Blind Willie McTell” was the focus of one of the most passionate and probing chapters in Gray’s magisterial book Song and Dance Man, so it seemed only appropriate when word got around that Gray was writing a book about McTell. In a way, Gray’s method echoes what Dylan did in his song. Read the lyrics:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.”
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
(I can) hear the undertaker’s bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Note the absence of quotations, or song titles, or even references to McTell himself beyond the simple declaration “I know no one can sing the blues/ Like Blind Willie McTell.” The song uses evocative imagery to create an outline of McTell and leaves you, the newly interested listener, the happy task of filling in the center. Which is what Gray sets out to do in Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, and it’s hard to imagine anyone adding any more details to the picture.

Dylan’s song is so dramatic that listeners going from there to McTell’s recording work might feel some initial letdown. There are no hellhounds on McTell’s trail, no claptrap about meeting the devil at the crossroads or dying young and vanishing into a cloud of brimstone. As Gray notes, McTell

. . . explodes every archetype about blues musicians. He is no roaring primitive, no Robert Johnsonesque devil-dealing womanizer. He didn’t lose his sight in a jook-joint brawl, or hopping a freight train. He didn’t escape into music from behind a mule plow in the Delta. He didn’t die violently or young. Instead, blind from birth but never behaving as if blindness handicapped him, this resourceful, articulate man became an adept professional musician who traveled widely and talked his way into an array of recording sessions.

He never achieved a hit record, but he became one of the most widely known and well-loved figures in Georgia. Working clubs and parking lots, playing to blacks and whites, tobacco workers and college kids, Blind Willie McTell, human jukebox and local hero, enjoyed a modest career and an independent life.

It was McTell’s added misfortune to die just as folk and blues revivalists were gearing up to track down and “rediscover” their favorite bluesmen, at least one of whom hadn’t held a guitar in decades and needed to be retaught his own style before he could perform in front of audiences eager to hear “authentic” music. No such rehab work would have been needed for McTell, and one can only dream of the effect his supple wit and agile guitar technique would have had on the festival circuit.

Gray takes great pains to establish clear lines for McTell’s parentage, and weave them through the fraught history of the South. This makes the opening chapters of Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes somewhat dry, but the context pays off later as we see the culture that produced the man and the music he enriched with his talent.

For anyone involved in a long, difficult research project, the two most important rules are (1) spend a lot of time, and (2), spend a lot of money. In Gray’s case we add (3) burn up a lot of shoe leather. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is a fit title for both subject and author. This book is an odyssey in which the worst monster is not one-eyed Polyphemus but the dull-eyed bureaucrat or bottom-tier functionary whose darkest fear is that he’ll be asked to put out a little extra effort. For example, theĀ  “pudgy and rather dense young black guy” who repulses Gray’s attempts to learn about McTell’s days with the Metropolitan Association for the Blind in Atlanta:

He told me that they “probably” don’t have any archives “on site” because they’ve moved buildings several times and that, anyway, people in the old days knew no better than to throw stuff away — but that, even if they did have any old documents, they certainly wouldn’t tell me. They wouldn’t tell me whether McTell had ever been helped by them, let alone anything else, because of patient confidentiality. “This man would have had to have signed a form to indicate that you were blessed with his permission.” He was unmoved by the snag that Mr. McTell had died some forty-three years beforehand.

Obtuseness is the last refuge of the incompetent. In this passage, Gray gives us a perfect example of what I call the Policy Punt — “It’s against our policy to tell you that” — to which add the Vacation Evasion (“There’s only one person who can tell anything about that, and he/she is on vacation”) and that reliable evergreen, the Fictional Flood (“We used to have those records, but there was a flood in the basement”). As someone who has heard multiple variations of these songs, I appreciate Gray’s criticism of the tunes.

At times, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes threatens to veer into dyspeptic Paul Theroux territory, with passages in which Gray finds himself marooned at strip-mall eateries, decrying “this vast acreage of plastic banquettes and paper cups and fried food and smiling servers paid virtually nothing but their tips . . . and no one seems to care that the food is so gross or that you can’t be a grown-up and have a drink.” Late in the book, however, is a description of a blood-freezing encounter with Georgia state prison guards that leaves you happy for Gray’s escape, and thinking about how it must have been for a black man in McTell’s time, when an encounter with whites could have sudden, life-changing consequences.

At such moments, one forgets the grumping about fast food and the unavailability of good wine, and Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes recovers its appeal as an engrossing, unique book — one that, like the music of its subject, pulls unlikely influences into a unified, distinctive whole.

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One thought on “Another turn in the South

  1. […] I consider Michael Gray the best writer on Bob Dylan walking the planet. I also greatly enjoyed his recent biography of blues master Blind Willie McTell, so needless to say it was a real treat to have Gray drop in at my bookstore for a Sunday afternoon […]

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