Willie McTell was one of the few early blues artists who managed to record in every decade from the 1920s through the 1950s. This song is from a session he did for the embryonic Atlantic Records in 1949, well before it became a powerhouse jazz and R&B label. In a long interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Atlantic’s founder, Ahmet Ertegun told the story:
I was walking along a main street in the black section of Atlanta – to me this is the most incredible story of my whole career – and there was a blind man who was sitting on the corner of the street with his back to the side of the building singing gospel songs, with a hat in front of him for people to drop money into. I stopped to listen to him because he was playing incredible slide guitar and singing so beautifully. I handed him some money so that the fellow could tell it was bills, not coins, and he said, “Oh, thank you – thanks.” So I said, “Have you ever heard of Blind Willie McTell?” And he said, “Man, I am Blind Willie McTell.” I said, “I can’t believe it. You are?” He said, “Yeah, that’s who I am.” And I said, “I would love to record you. I’m from a record company in New York.”
We went to the studio that same day, but he only wanted to play gospel songs. I said, “Oh, man, but we wanted some blues.” He said, “Well, I don’t sing blues anymore, I’ve found God.” I said, “But you make great blues music – this is not a bad thing – if you could just sing some blues.” “Well,” he said, “don’t put my name on it.” So I said, “OK, we’ll call you Barrelhouse Sammy.” So we made some blues records and they came out under that name until after he died, when we released them with his actual name. It would have been criminal not to let people know who he was.