Document Records - Vintage Blues and Jazz

Review of Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes

Review of Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell by Michael Gray

Bloomsbury

ISBN-10: 0747565600

ISBN-13: 978-0747565604


Although Michael Gray has been well aware of blues music for many years, his research into the music and life of Georgian born twelve string guitarist and blues singer, Blind Willie McTell is as much a result of his experiences as an expert on rock ‘n’ roll history. In particular, for Gray, the credence of McTell has been heightened all the more when Bob Dylan dedicated a song to Blind Willie McTell. Gray had already written “Song and Dance Man III: The Art Of Bob Dylan” and “The Bob Dylan Encyclopaedia”.

In stark contrast to the Blind Willie Johnson book, “Hand Me Down My Travelin’ Shoes” is packed with information and it could be argued , dangerously so. At 357 pages long (before appendix, index, etc.,), it is not until chapter seven at page 114 that Willie comes into the picture and even then it is not for another three chapters after that before he really takes centre stage. So, what is there to talk about in this huge preamble whilst we wait for our hero to arrive?


Well, there is the journey from Michael’s arrival at
Atlanta airport to Thompson Georgia. This stretch of his epic journey is purposely taken by bus and here his talents as a travel writer come into Michael’s own giving the book the extra dimension of a travelogue. As the tiny towns, fields and woods pass by the experience is magical and as with any adventure the nearer we get to our destination the more exciting it becomes. No need to play “first one to spot a white gate” here. There’s too much to see, too much to take in. Just listen to our guide.

But after a while things take a temporary dip. Sometime after reaching Thomson Michael discovers the white family from which Willie’s grandfather comes from. This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse for the reader. We are able to go back to the early nineteenth century where the family is traced but unwittingly, the family lets him study the diary of   grandfather Reddick McTyeir who signs up as soon as the first shots of the American Civil War are fired. After that it is a full blow by blow, shot by shot, day by day struggle through Reddick’s war diary. It’s at times like this during our journey that I feel like asking “are we there yet?” The fact is (and this is the nub of the matter) Reddick was Willie’s grandfather. More quick sand is encountered when Michael points out that the part of
Georgia’s history that Willie finds himself born into was prone to witnessing lychings. To drive this point home we have the full list of just about every lynching that took place in the vicinity around the time; reason for, victim, consequence.

Another moment of rather over zealous reporting is where several pages are taken up with a list of every blind bluesman born in
Georgia around the time of Willie’s birth and then elsewhere around the time and oh, to Hell with it, let’s list every blues man born within a decade of Willie’s birth, irrespective of where they came from.

Consequently, the first third or so of this book could have been a wonderful, punchy preamble to what is to follow. Instead we have to wade through some unnecessary areas of information. But it is worth allowing Michael to take us around the houses. He’s into it and likes to linger at the shop window of facts. Let him because he’s going to get there eventually and by golly, are you going to be impressed.


When Willie arrives the book rapidly picks up pace and what we are presented with is an incredible wealth of fascinating information. Michael’s research with the aid of his wife Sarah, who stayed back at base in
Yorkshire trawling through endless on-line records, is exhaustive to say the least. With hardly a stone unturned we are taken into the past and shown with great clarity Willie’s life, in particular, from the day he was born until the day he died and beyond to those who survive him today.

There are some very informative encounters with relatives, friends and colleagues. As a result there is not only outpouring of new fact but Michael offers some very carefully considered theories and possibilities such as who may have funded Willie to go to the school for the Blind. There is the meeting with the wonderful Sister Fleeta Mitchel who at the age of ninety-three remembered Willie as a fellow student at one of the blind schools that Willie attended. During an interview in 2001 she recalled that Willie was a “real mathematician”. She also remembered with affection that she and Willie had parts in a school play presentation of Little Red Riding Hood in which Willie played the part of the Wood Chopper!


Willie’s professional music career is also discussed at length with emphasis on the word “professional” both in and outside of the recording studio. It is also hardly surprising but nevertheless fascinating to find out how Willie survived as a black, blind man, under some of the harshest conditions in the early twentieth century south of the
United States.

There is also detailed reporting of Willie’s female companions, both wives and partners including some astonishing revelations about Kate McTell. The information about this area of Willie’s life is helped by the memorable research undertaken by Dave Evans and his parents in the early seventies. Michael is at times quite harsh about the Evans’s research. Nevertheless, he is quite willing to use it at length and it is interesting how this material which, after all, has been until this time, a major point of reference for the last thirty years or so is brought up to date.


Considering that only a few decades ago what was known of Willie McTell’s life as one of the most interesting and exciting artists from the pre-war blues era could have been written on a single sheet of paper with room to spare, this book is remarkable. This story of a man’s journey to try and find out about such an enigmatic figure is told with the conviction and the kind of desire for information on his subject that any fan of Willie McTell or blues music as a whole would be able to appreciate. Yes, buy it!

 

 

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