Wednesday, 3 October 2007


The trip we made to Georgia this last couple of weeks was partly to show Sarah the places I'd traipsed around while researching Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: places she'd come to know by proxy, as it were, from doing her own traipsing through online census records and the like - and partly to meet (mostly re-meet, in my case) people who'd been helpful along the way.

In Savannah, we went to the Georgia Historical Society library, emerging from its olde worlde hush into a loud downpour, against which the umbrellas we thought we'd done well to remember were almost completely useless, even in the short block's walk to the free shuttle bus service stop.

Elsewhere, it only rained once, and that was as we headed back toward Savannah from Statesboro some days later. This time we were in the car, so we stayed dry - but had to pull off the road and wait for some time, the monsoon this time making it impossible to see the road ahead or anything on it. When the sky brightened in the distance, we drove on... and a couple of miles down the road a man was mowing his entirely dry grass. It hadn't rained here at all.

The one piece of work I did was to give a short talk (in Thomson GA) about Willie McTell and my book at the 18th Annual Reunion of the McTier family, organised largely by Jan and Lindy McTier, characters in the book whose own researches had given me so much information on Reddick McTyeire, the man who turned out to be Willie's white great-grandfather. I told the family that they were all cousins of Willie's, therefore. They found this most interesting news.

In Thomson too we had a meal with Teddy Jackson, another character featured in the book, whose aunt Hazel was married to Willie's cousin Eddie, aka Bo-Rat. He gave us one piece of "new" information that I wished I'd known a year ago: that the family still owns a 45rpm record-player that Willie himself gave to them. Very few things belonging to Willie seem to have survived, so that this is a significant artefact.

Up towards Athens GA (which reminded Sarah of a small Austin Texas) we spent time with Gary Doster and his wife Faye. Gary is the Georgia historian and collector who had been kind enough to let me draw upon his unrivalled collection of old Georgia postcards - one is reproduced on the dust-jacket of the UK hardback; needless to say I hope that a future US edition will use illustrations and photographs rather less penny-pinchedly, which will allow me, among other things, to use more from Gary Doster's archives. He had also been resourceful enough to follow up the clues I'd been given and to find Willie's second wife Helen's mysterious place of burial. I had not met Gary before, nor been able to visit Helen's grave, so Sarah and I shared the freshness of these encounters.

In Statesboro I reconnected with Delma Presley, the local historian, author and emeritus professor whose own studies, and personal knowledge, of Statesboro history were so useful to my own research. He introduced us also to a group of exceptionally cordial and lively people from the university there, Georgia Southern.

While we were in Statesboro, too, we were delighted to be able to meet Barbara Davis, who seems to be connected to Willie through both her mother's and her father's family, though the details of some of these connections remain a puzzle to Barbara as well as to us. She and I had only enjoyed phone conversations until now, so it was terrific to meet up properly with someone so open, warm-hearted, ardent and shrewd.

I hope to be back, and to re-connect with all these people and more, when an American edition of the book comes out.

Meanwhile, just to repeat that I'm heading up to Dumfries and Galloway, in the Scottish lowlands, to give a talk at the Wigtown Book Festival this Friday, after speaking on the Tom Morton Show on BBC Radio Scotland just after 2pm the same day. Specifically:

Michael Gray: In Search of Blind Willie McTell
9pm (yes, 9pm), Friday October 5
Bladnoch Distillery
Scotland DG8 9AB
Festival Box Office: 01988 403222
Tickets: £5

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