“Blind Willie McTell” (1983)

Michael Gray in his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia uses the word “Spookily” to describe Dylan’s commemoration of McTell’s birthday in “Blind Willie McTell.”  Apparently, an agreed upon date of birth for McTell is May 5, 1903, and Dylan first recorded the song on May 5, 1983, the 5th month on the 5th day.  This tribute also may be reflected in the 5 stanzas that comprise “Blind Willie.”  In addition, the rhymes are in a “5” pattern, 10 to be exact, 2 in each of the 5 stanzas, a 5 + 5 memorializing.

The rhyme scheme follows a strict a/b/c/b/d/e/f/e pattern in each verse–with the rhymes not tied to the name “McTell” in the refrain that ends each stanza being, “condemned”/Jerusalem”, “tents”/”audience” (a brilliant rhyme!), “whips”/”ships”, “man”/”hand”, and “His”/”is”.  But the “McTell” rhymes get our attention the most with the thematic underpinnings in them, what with McTell being linked to “fell”, “well’, “bell”, “yell”, and “Hotel”.

These words carry us through the memorable and haunting settings of each verse, the first a condemned land; the second at night under trees with tents being taken down; the third plantations with whips cracking, slavery, tribes moaning, death; the fourth near a river and a highway, and the last inside the St. James Hotel, but looking out the window.

Sounds abound in this song, as Gray says of this “rich and complex song” itself, that it “is built upon the perfect interweaving of guitar, piano, voice and silence– . . .”  It’s that silence that lets us hear what the words do to our sense of hearing–throughout that land, the owl in that tree, the screams from that plantation, on that river and highway, and ultimately in that hotel.

Enigmatic is that it never was recorded for a studio album–no place for it–no context among other songs. It must stand by itself–no song can sing the blues like “Blind Willie McTell.”