Thanks to everyone who came to the launch event at Summit Bookshop in Kirkbymoorside, which went very well, especially considering it was held at 11 o'clock on a Monday morning of torrential rain . . . and now a lovely review has been published in The Informer, which is not a newsletter for snitches and supergrasses but a free listings magazine (no. 61, July '07) for the North-East of England. Written by Tyneside journalist Terry Kelly, it runs like this:
Nobody Can Sing the Blues Like Blind Willie McTell
Acclaimed Bob Dylan critic Michael Gray turns his attention to a blues master in his latest book - with wonderful results. Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Bloomsbury, £25), is set to become the standard work on the charismatic twelve-string guitar player and singer. The press release rightly describes the book as a "personal and moving odyssey into a lost world of early blues music," with the author literally following in the footsteps of McTell in the singer's native Georgia. But this is no gonzo-style biographical extravagance, but a serious attempt to set McTell in his historical and cultural contexts, highlighting the resilience of the man himself in the face of great personal and professional hurdles and the magnificence of his musical legacy. Stretching back and forth, from the bloody battles of the American Civil War to McTell's final days, the book is distinguished by an unfailing attention to detail - often in the face of scant or non-existent records and census returns - and a stylish prose which rescues McTell from the shadows of cultural history.
The dust jacket is emblazoned with a lyric from a 1983 Bob Dylan recording: "Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell." The quote is as good a starting point as any for a biographical study of a country blues great whose death in 1959 makes him part of what Gray defines as "that surreal place, the recent past." Dylan's lyric indicates what made McTell the greatest blues singer ever to come out of Georgia. Willie McTell's light tenor voice could handle a rich variety of songs. Like Lead Belly, he would sing anything, from classic blues to popular numbers of his day, often for nickels and dimes on the highways and byways of his native state. But the blind McTell was not a fire-and-brimstone blues artist, like his sometime travelling companion and almost-namesake, Blind Willie Johnson. Nor did he (allegedly) sell his soul at the crossroads, in the manner of the haunted Robert Johnson. McTell was a musical chameleon, who could create magic with just a guitar and a voice, without the need of any supplementary musical mythology. But relatively little was known about McTell until Gray began his musical odyssey almost ten years ago. In one sense, Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes is an act of cultural retrieval, the author blowing away the dust of history to disentangle fact from fiction.
Quite apart from containing the fruits of painstaking research extracted from various libraries, public institutions and even Georgia funeral parlours, the book is also a hymn to McTell's native Georgia. Gray traces the routes the blind singer would have followed, in and around his native Thomson. Catching a bus from Atlanta with the author, the reader takes in the sights, sounds and smells of McTell's luxurious but also chaotic home state, a place where the American Civil War and segregation are still very much alive in the people and culture. There is a highly evocative description of the Jones Grove Baptist Church, where McTell worshipped. English irony meets the rich emotion of a gospel service, as Gray witnesses the church taken over by the religious fervour and melodrama that would have been McTell's natural environment as a churchgoer. There's a moving end to Gray's visit, as some of the church elders reveal how as children they would peek in at the old blues singer, often sitting alone with just his guitar, seeing out his final days with relatives.
As a poor black man, McTell was very much a victim of history, like thousands of others. The great-grandson of a white landowner, the singer's social standing was never in doubt, but Gray's book is fired by an admiration for McTell's personal and musical spirit, which failed to be vanquished by time and circumstances. Despite his lowly origins, McTell bequeathed us such standards as Statesboro Blues, Broke Down Engine Blues and the unimpeachable greatness of The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues. McTell's music has proved an inspiration for everyone from Dylan to Led Zeppelin to the Allman Brothers. But the story of his final recordings, made in 1956, and very nearly thrown out with the trash, is almost a metaphor for the lost histories of millions of black Americans, whose lives and deaths went largely unrecorded in the segregationist Deep South.
To risk a cliche, Michael Gray's book is a labour of love. But it is also a history of the cultural landscape which produced the great blues singer Blind Willie McTell. Complete with a detailed discography, Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes will appeal not only to blues devotees, but to anyone interested in a musical detective story and the amazing resilience of the human and artisitic spirit.