Statesboro Blues (Willie McTell)

I’m not sure exactly how I learned “Statesboro Blues” — of course I listened to the original recording by Blind Willie McTell, and I know Woody Mann’s tablature played a part, but I don’t recall playing it much until I was touring in the early 1980s, and even then I tended to play it only as a request, because a lot of other people were already doing it. It was a pretty frequent request, presumably due to the Allman Brothers’ version, which I thought they got from John Hammond,* though more knowledgeable people cite Taj Mahal. Either way, the source for all of them was presumably Sam Charters’s groundbreaking anthology, The Country Blues. Like “Walk Right In” and “Stealin’, Stealin’,” this was not a big hit when it was first released, but that Charters LP was a foundational text for the blues revival, so for my generation those songs were standards.

We came to blues as part of the folk revival, and tended to focus on guitarists and think of singers like McTell as “roots” blues artists, from an older tradition than the more urban stars like Bessie Smith, with their pianos and jazz bands. In fact, this song is an excellent example of the extent to which that influence went in the opposite direction — in his book on McTell, Michael Gray traced the sources of this song and concluded that the lyric was compiled from several different recordings by female blues singers. The most significant was Sippie Wallace’s “Up the Country Blues,” which starts:

Hey, mama, run tell your papa,
Go tell your sister, run tell your auntie
That I’m going up the country,
Don’t you want to go?

And ends:

My mama’s got ’em, my papa’s got ’em, my sister’s got ’em,
My auntie had ’em,

Said, I woke up this morning, papa, had up the country blues,
When I looked over in the corner, my grandma had ’em too.

Other verses come from Bessie Smith’s “Reckless Blues” and Ivy Smith’s “Cincinnati Southern Blues” — none of which is surprising, since guitar players like McTell grew up playing a mix of rural dance music, religious songs, ballads, ragtime, and whatever else they heard from neighbors, local musicians, traveling performers, and by the late 1920s records and radio. Most seem to have added blues to their repertoires as it was popularized by tent show and vaudeville singers like Smith, Wallace, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox.

None of that diminishes the brilliance of McTell’s performance, or the originality with which he wove his sources together into a unique creation. Statesboro, Georgia, was his home town, so he gets full credit for that reference, and the version I do is thoroughly copied from his playing, though I make no attempt at his singing style. As Dylan wrote, “nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie Mctell.” I don’t play a lot of his songs, but when I’m in the mood for pre-war blues, he is still the artist I listen to most frequently, and I always hear something new.


*These days a lot of people think of Hammond as an acoustic blues player, but after first recording this one solo acoustic on his Country Blues album, he did it again on Mirrors in 1967, which had most of The Band, plus Mike Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite. Hammond was a good friend a jamming partner of Duane Allman’s, and also had Jimi Hendrix as his guitarist for a while.