Kirkus Reviews QR Code


In Search of Blind Willie McTell

by Michael Gray

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-55652-975-7
Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Investigation of the great Georgia bluesman.

Since the British journalist and music researcher has mainly been known as a Bob Dylan authority (The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, 2006, etc.), it’s natural that Gray would have more curiosity than many about Blind Willie McTell, whose artistry inspired the Dylan song of the same name. Though McTell never enjoyed a popular hit during his brief but rich life, his “Statesboro Blues” posthumously became a signature tune for fellow Georgians the Allman Brothers Band. Less a conventional biography than a mixture of history, travelogue and detective story, Gray paints an evocative portrait of an artist who defied blues stereotypes. He was an educated man whose musical training ranged from church to glee club. He found it so easy to get around that he would help direct other blind people, and he benefited from white patrons and audiences—though the author by no means minimizes the racism of the society in which McTell lived. It’s curious that Gray intends the book less for the blues fan than for “those who have never heard of him, and have no particular interest in that particular kind of old music,” since it’s hard to imagine casual readers wading through all the minutiae, half truths and dead-ends that the author encounters as he attempts to render the details of McTell’s life. Yet his recounting of his last years—when the diabetic artist, bereft after the death of his second wife, suffered a stroke that led to his hospitalization in a mental institution, where he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1959—has a poignancy that rewards all the research. After the book’s initial publication in the United Kingdom in 2007, Gray has continued to update.

What matters most about McTell is his music, and Gray’s solid book will lead readers there.