Kind Mama Blues (Blind Willie McTell)

One of the few pre-war blues records I had before finding the trove at Dayton’s in New York was an album on Biograph by Blind Willie McTell, which began a lifelong infatuation with his work. It was a somewhat troubled relationship, because he played twelve-string guitar on most of his records, which meant I could never get his sound, and tuned it very low, which made it hard for me to pick up licks in those days before we had digital pitch-shifting.

On the other hand, that meant I had to work out my own variations, inspired by McTell’s playing but not attempting to duplicate it, which is always a good exercise. And, in any case, what I loved most about McTell was not the guitar work but his singing. He combined the light ragtime phrasing of someone like Blind Blake with a depth and soulfulness Blake lacked, and never sang two verses quite the same. He also had a gift for coming up with interesting lyrics, and a variety of styles and approaches that few other “country blues” artists matched — the habit of reissuing pre-war blues recordings in multi-disc chronological sets makes most performers of that era sound repetitive, but I can cheerfully listen to McTell’s complete recordings back to back, from beginning to end.

All of which said, I only learned a half-dozen or so of his songs — the first couple because they were in Woody Mann’s Six Black Blues Guitarists and the tablature provided a guide, and then this one, which just caught my ear for some reason. There’s always an element of happenstance in which songs work and which don’t, and when I started fooling around with this, it fell together in a way I liked. I’m pretty sure I came up with my basic arrangement during that year I spent studying with Dave Van Ronk — for whom I auditioned with McTell’s “Georgia Rag” — or shortly afterwards, and only later added the cool riff with the off-beat rhythmic touches from Blind Blake’s “That’ll Never Happen No More,” which I’d recently learned from an older street musician.