Song of the Day 1/9: “Blind Willie McTell,” The Band

Filed in Arts and Entertainment by on January 9, 2019 2 Comments

Most people, myself included, think this is one of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs, but almost nobody would have heard it if The Band hadn’t plucked it from obscurity for their “Jericho” album in 1993. A searing rumination on the the blues and the American South, Dylan wrote it for his 1983 “Infidels” album but — this is the part that always gobsmacks people — left it off the album. He recorded a demo version of the song with himself at the piano and Mark Knopfler on 12-string, another with Mick Taylor on slide guitar, but considered the song unfinished. This is the version with Taylor. Note the clipped version of the refrain:

As Dylan’s unreleased recordings had a tendency to do, bootleg tapes got out, and The Band reworked it a bit, adding “I know one thing” to give the refrain a more staccato rhythm. Dylan, naturally, was miffed, telling Rolling Stone, “It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are Picasso fans.” Still, Dylan began playing it live after that, eventually adding the Band’s line to his own performances.

Besides, how upset could he really be? The melody, in the finest folk/blues tradition, was a heist, reworked from the chestnut “St. James Infirmary Blues.” The song under that name was recorded by Louis Armstrong and several times by Cab Calloway, including this hammed-up version, and by others under the names “Gambler’s Blues” and “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues”:

Naturally that song was based on an even older one, a British folk song most often called “The Unfortunate Rake,” which also gave rise to “The Streets of Laredo.” And so we sing on, borne ceaselessly back into the past.

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  1. Damn, that’s good stuff!

  2. Alby says:

    “God’s in his heaven, and we all want what is his/
    But power and greed, the corruptible seed, seem to be all that there is.”

    Yet some people thought he shouldn’t get a Nobel.

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