Wednesday, October 18, 2023

The NRR Project: Blind Willie McTell and 'Statesboro Blues'


"Statesboro Blues”

Written by Blind Willie McTell

Performed by Blind Willie McTell, vocals and guitar

Recorded Oct. 17, 1928


You have heard this song before, just not in its original version.

Anyone exposed to rock and roll will know the iconic 1971 performance of this song by the Allman Brothers on their first live album, raucous and slashing, full of bluesy guitar squeals and whines.

The Allman version, however, is based directed on a slide-inflected, upbeat version recorded by Taj Mahal in 1967. The Brothers heard this in concert and determined to cover it themselves.

Taj Mahal reached far back into the history of the blues to revive this song. Blind Willie McTell, the song’s creator and first performer, played it into the microphone in 1928.

Now, I could not do better than the comprehensive essay onthis song by Bruce Bader on the National Recording Registry website. It is beyond comprehensive. However, I can say that McTell (originally McTier, but people couldn’t understand his slurring) was a quiet genius, one whose musicianship is expressed modestly, and with understated wit.

McTell accompanies himself on the 12-string guitar, and unusual choice at the time. The com-plex rhythms that underlie his verses propel the song forward, gently. His chiming tenor floats over the arrangement, chanting out a series of vaguely related blues verses, a kind of portmanteau song.

 Wake up, mama, turn your lamp down low

Wake up, mama, turn your lamp down low

Have you got the nerve to drive Papa McTell from your door?


My mother died and left me reckless

My daddy died and left me wild, wild, wild

Mother died and left me reckless

Daddy died and left me wild, wild, wild

No, I'm not good lookin' but I'm some sweet woman's angel child


She's a mighty mean woman, do me this a-way

She's a mighty mean woman, do me this a-way

When I leave this town, pretty mama, I'm goin' away to stay


I once loved a woman, better than any I'd ever seen

I once loved a woman, better than any I'd ever seen

Treated me like I was a king and she was a doggone queen


Sister, tell your brother, brother tell your auntie

Now auntie, tell your uncle, uncle tell my cousin

Now cousin, tell my friend

Goin' up the country, mama, don't you want to go?

May take me a fair brown, may take one or two more

 McTell never had a recognizable hit during his lifetime – he died in 1959, nine years before Taj Mahal’s rediscovery and rebroadcast of this essential blues track.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: Rosa Ponselle sings ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s ‘Norma.’


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