If you read my blog, you’ve possibly discovered I’m crazy about my children, I love to travel, and I’m always ready to hear a compelling story. Last week, while in the Peach State of Georgia, I visited with two of my offspring and I heard a story I want to share with you. It was a good week.
My youngest is attending Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. During Hannah’s Spring semester, she worked on an art project relating to the Blind Willie McTell Trail in Statesboro. I hadn’t heard of Willie McTell until she started the project..
As I did my research for this post, I learned I was familiar with Blind Willie McTell’s music. If you ever heard “Statesboro Blues”, most recognizably recorded by the Allman Brothers, you have heard music written by Willie. Blind Willie wrote and recorded the song in 1928 and the Allman Brothers recorded their version in 1971.
William Samuel McTier (Blind Willie McTell) was born in either 1898 or 1903 in Thomson, Georgia. At some point, he moved with his mother to Statesboro. He considered Statesboro his real home. Willie was born blind or born blind in one eye and lost the sight in the other eye by late childhood. Sources vary on the facts of his life.
Blind Willie learned to play the guitar in his early teens. He became a street performer and travelled to play his music. He learned to play the twelve-string guitar and eventually played it exclusively. This guitar gave him better volume for music played outside on the street. Despite his blindness, he was a confident performer and he was able to deal with the everyday world. He frequently travelled from Atlanta to New York City, sometimes alone. Being a blind, African-American man at this time in history must have been a struggle. It’s clear that Blind Willie was a courageous man.
Willie played Piedmont blues and ragtime. If, like me, you are not familiar with Piedmont blues, this is a guitar style with elaborate finger-picking. He was also a songwriter and a gifted singer. He started recording for Victor Records in 1927. Although he never produced a major hit for himself, Willie stayed active and recorded for most of his life.
Willie battled diabetes and alcoholism during his life. Starting in 1956, he played only religious music. In 1957, he became a preacher at the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta. He died August 19, 1959, of a cerebral hemorrhage in Milledgeville, Georgia.
If you listen to music at all, you’ve probably heard something he wrote. Taj Mahal, The White Stripes, Deep Purple, Bob Dylan, and Ry Cooder are just a few of the musicians who have recorded Willie’s songs. In 1983, Bob Dylan wrote the song, “Blind Willie McTell”, paying tribute to Willie.
Blind Willie McTell was inducted in the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in 1981. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990.
Here he is singing “Statesboro Blues”.
Blind Willie’s story might be missed by a visitor to Statesboro but his story is the kind I love to stumble upon. My dream job would be to travel across the United States, sit in small town diners, and hear the tales only the locals know. This is where you find the stories that provide colorful squares for the quilt-work history of overlooked communities. This is where you find the hidden gems. Sometimes the stories are about crime or hauntings (I love a good ghost story) or about lesser known local celebrities.
And if it’s not at a diner, you may, as I did, hear a charming story from your daughter when she does a Capstone project highlighting a short, often missed, trail in her town. A trail named after the town’s King of the Georgia Blues. You might discover Blind Willie McTell.
If you ever find yourself in Statesboro, Georgia, take a stroll down the Blind Willie McTell Trail. It starts at Fair Road’s Memorial Park and ends at Triangle Park in downtown Statesboro. The students of Georgia Southern University custom designed the benches on the trail. If you’re there this summer, you can visit the Center for Art & Theater at Georgia Southern University and see the exhibit celebrating the trail and the history of the memorable local celebrity, Blind Willie McTell.