Friday, February 01, 2013
The most interesting conversation ever captured at a recording session
On November 4th 1940 John Lomax and his wife Ruby were in Atlanta, Georgia, looking for folk musicians to record for the Library of Congress.
As they drove past the Pig and Whistle, a whites-only drive-in barbecue, Ruby saw an African American playing guitar and singing for the customers. Blind Willie McTell, who was dressed in the smart suit, cap, collar and tie in which he preferred to perform, was 42 at the time. The Lomaxes had been told to look out for McTell and they paid him a dollar to turn up the Fulton Hotel the following day with his guitar.
November 5th was election day in the United States but McTell came to the hotel room where Lomax had set up his equipment and for two hours played his songs and talked. Unlike Robert Johnson, who was so shy during his two recording sessions that he would only sing while facing the corner, McTell gives a performance which is so confident and polished it's almost a lecture.
He plays spirituals, gambling songs, rags and songs about chasing women. Unlike the bluesmen of the Delta his articulation is clear, which means the lyrics are intelligible. His command of the twelve-string guitar and bottleneck allows him to break off lines and let the instrument do the talking, in a way that Jimi Hendrix would do years later. Many bluesmen are hard to listen to for long periods. You can listen to Blind Willie McTell all day long.
Between songs he addresses the Lomaxes as if they were a public meeting, telling them about what "the country people" used to do in "the old days" and how one particular song dates from the days when "the blues first started being original". He recounts the name - and full addresses - of all the various record companies he has recorded for under different names during the 30s. He is clearly a sophisticated, worldly-wise, seasoned, even slightly pompous professional entertainer.
Lomax, who had discovered Leadbelly, knew the white audience preferred its blues musicians miserable and oppressed and so asks if he's got any "complaining songs". Willie refuses to play along. Listen.
Then again, we do get this. One man and a guitar, in a hotel room, in the middle of the afternoon.