Tuesday, 17 June 2008


I'm sorry to report, and belatedly too, the death of Utah Phillips, a great man and an interesting artist. Obituaries are here and here.

I never met him, but in 2004, when I was still researching Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes, blues writer Elijah Wald told me that Utah had once met Blind Willie McTell. It seemed a wonderfully unexpected yet pleasing conjunction, so I telephoned Mr. Phillips and he gave me a warm and generous telephone interview. In the event, I could only find space for the briefest of mentions of their meeting in the finished book - page 293 of the hardback - and he was omitted from the index in error. This seems a good moment to reproduce that interview more or less in full:

Recorded at our homes by telephone, late May 2004
Transcribed July 2004

MG: My name’s Michael Gray, and I’m a writer, and I’m phoning you from England.

B: You’re calling from England? Wait just a second, let me put my wood down… There, I’ve put it down.


B: So, er, you’re across the Big Pond.

MG: I am indeed, yes. I live in North Yorkshire.

B: Oh, North Yorkshire. Well you don’t sound like a Geordie.

MG: No. Indeed. Where are you? I know you’re on Pacific Time but …

B: I’m in Nevada City, California - a little gold-mining town of about 2700 people, in the foothills of the sierra here.

MG: Right. Good. I’m ringing you because I’m writing the biography of Blind Willie McTell.

B: Oh, good heavens! Willie McTell, yeah… That’s commendable. He was a very interesting man.

MG: Yes indeed, he certainly was. And Elijah Wald tells me that you met him.

B: Yes I did, I met him many years ago. I met him in, uh, God, you know I think it was Knoxville Kentucky.

MG: Oh! Really!?

B: I was hitchhiking around at the time, and it was Knoxville - through Tennessee, somewhere round there. Where was he living later in his life?

MG: Atlanta.

B: Down in Georgia.

MG: Yes, but I mean y’know he travelled really widely, so -

B: Yeah, I know he did. But I know it wasn’t in Georgia. I didn’t get down to Georgia till the mid-70s, and this would have been in the, uh, early ’60s.

MG: Sorry, when?

B: In the early ’60s.

MG: Actually it must have been earlier than that because he died in August ’59.

B: Well, OK. I was tramping round when I got back from uh - when I got back from Korea, on the troop ship, I was tramping a good bit, on the freight trains, just to kinda sort my thoughts out -

MG: Yes.

B: So yeah, it would have been on that trip, because I didn’t get back to Salt Lake till between ’50 and ’61, so it would have been on that trip.

MG: So it would have been very late in the ’50s.

B: Very very late.

MG: And, er, you happened to bump into him? How did it go?

B: No, I was introduced to him by, um, well what I’d been trying to do was, I’d been trying to learn how to fingerpick the guitar - you know I wanted to learn the drop stop style of guitar... so I was asking, every place I stopped, every place I tramped to, I asked about musicians. And some people were - as I recall: it’s such a long time ago - they were sort of having a party, indoor-outdoor, kind of like a street party -

MG: Yes -

B: - and that’s where I met Mr. McTell, sort of, you know, very briefly.

MG: Uh huh?

B: And I think what Elijah was alluding to was a conversation that, part of a conversation that he and I had. It was very brief. Let’s see, I had just finished listening to [McTell] play: he played ‘Twelve Gates To The City’ -

MG: Oh really!?! -

B: On a -

MG: He did?!

B: Oh yeah, he could play that ‘Twelve Gates to the City’ beautifully. On a twelve-string guitar. I dunno if it was his twelve-string guitar or somebody else’s, but he played ‘Twelve Gates to the City’ on a twelve-string guitar, and uh, you know, to that point I was really unfamiliar with Delta blues, Piedmont blues: I was not familiar with that completely. And I had the yen, you know, I had just from listening to people talk understood that these blues men that I - that I got to know later on, you know, when I left Utah and started working in [???] - I became good friends with John Jackson and especially Robert Pete Williams - and Mississippi Fred McDowell, because we worked together a good bit - and Junior Lockwood - but to that point, you know, I had a yen to understand that the music, it wasn’t very old but it had a long tradition and that all these people used to play that music when they were young - when they were young men, when they were my age at that time: when they were in their late teens or early twenties. And I knew that then there’s a long period of time that no-one pays much attention to them at all, like Son House, and then finally were “discovered” because of the folk-music revival. But I was curious about what this music, when it was in the jazz houses and the jook joints: what did it sound like? When you were young, what d’you sound like? And he said “You want to hear what we sounded like when we were your age, you listen to early Elvis Presley, old Elvis Presley.”

MG: That’s great!

B: Now I don’t think he was joking, either -

MG: - no, no, no!

B: ’Cause when you look back on it, I know that Elvis’ early life he had very strong roots in that music: he understood it.

MG: Yes.

B: Well that’s about what I know about Blind Willie.

MG: Well now, when you had that conversation with him, was this - were you standing around outside, or inside a room?

B: It was on the porch.

MG: Of what?

B: On the porch looking out at the street - it was kind of a street party going on.

MG: And was this a white street or a black street?

B: Well the people that took me over there were white, they were young musicians, and most of the people there, it was a black neighborhood.

MG: And can you picture him now? Can you picture what he was wearing?

B: He was [pause] wearing a yellow shirt, a yellow shirt open at the front, and he was wearing dark pants. That’s all I can remember. I’m also real conscious of shoes, you know: his shoes were pretty well polished, black shoes. That’s all I can remember. Trying to picture him now I don’t know if I remember suspenders or what.

MG: And did he look in reasonable health?

B: Well he looked tired. The thing is, as I recall, we got there - this thing had been going on all day and we got there about seven o’clock in the evening. And he looked tired - I assume he’d been playing all day, but I don’t know. When I arrived, he was playing ‘Twelve Gates to the City’ and I stood on the lawn and listened to it and then I got up on the porch, there were a couple of steps on the porch and he was sat down on the porch, and, er, other people were talking to him and, see I didn’t know who he was. Blind Willie McTell I was told. And then I asked my question.

MG: But when he gave you that answer was he talking about the blues music or the gospel music, d/you think?

B: Well I couldn’t tell yah… and see there were a lot of people playing around there too, there were some young fellers, African Americans playing Delta blues you know? He was playing a gospel tune, and he was the only one who was. I sort of gestured around me to the music that was going on around me, so I think my question was more inclusive than just him. So I think his answer was more inclusive too.

MG: Yeah. You said that he’d said “If you want to know how we sounded…”

B: Yep.

MG: Who told you that it was Blind Willie McTell?

B: Whoever it was that took me over there. I think the people that took me over there, that their intention was, that they knew that Blind Willie McTell was going to be there. But, y’know, if they mentioned the name to me at all when I first got to town I had no way of recognising it.

MG: Right. Now I have to ask this. ‘Twelve Gates to the City’ is generally associated with Blind Gary Davis. So I just need to be sure that you’re sure that it was Blind Willie McTell and not Blind Gary Davis that -

B: Yes. No, I never met Gary Davis…

MG: Great. Good. Excellent. And if you think back, have you any way of pinning down what year this could have been?

B: Well it’s gotta be in’58 - I would say it was in late ’58: ’cause I was headed south then. You know, south for the winter, north for the summer.

MG: Yes. Yes.

B: I can’t remember where I was headed. See that was a pretty upset time in my life: I was pretty upset by what had gone on in Korea, you know, that I had seen and done, and I was on the trains because I was angry and frightened, and I was drifting. And a lot of the time I was drunk.

MG: So you were how old at this point? How young?

B: Well let’s see. I was 22, 23 years old. I’m 69 now.

MG: Well I’m 57. Yes… Well I’ve been aware of you as a figure in the history of all this stuff for a long time, and I’m very respectful of your function as a Wobbly, quite apart from anything else.

B: Well this is my 50th year in that union.

MG: But I had never dreamt of putting you and Blind Willie together. It’s a lovely idea.

B: Yes. Well I appreciate talking to you.

MG; Alright, well me too. Thank you very much. I’m very glad to have caught you.

B: Anything I can do for you, let me know.

MG: Alright. Thank you again.

B: See you later.

MG: Goodbye.

© Michael Gray, 2008.


Anonymous said...

“You want to hear what we sounded like when we were your age, you listen to early Elvis Presley, old Elvis Presley.”

That's a beautiful and truthful quote - it credits both Willie and Elvis simultaneously. Elvis for his interpretations of black musical forms and Willie for realising Elvis's talent.

Michael Gray said...

I absolutely agree. That was my feeling, when Utah P told me Willie had said that. I was thrilled, and felt an enhanced sense - if that were possible - of Willie's musical awareness, broadmindedness and acuity.

And in truth I was also delighted because I had already published a piece about McTell in which I'd compared a couple of his 1950 Regal recordings to the Elvis of 'That's All Right' (recorded, as it happens, only four years later). It was not a comparison that would have pleased many pre-war blues devotees, but it seemed right to me. When I heard that Willie himself had made the same comparison, I laughed with delight.

Anyway, thanks again for your comment. It's appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Michael, let's say it's the same year (1958/9) and you are sitting in Willie's living room, and he's sitting in front of you; what question do you ask him if you can only ask one?

I think Utah's question was great. It was direct enough for a concise answer, yet vague enough for Willie to expand upon or interpret in his own way. It gave Willie a chance to describe his own music, while reflecting on the general sound of the region and time.

I have the philosophy that in most cases it's best to let the interviewee give the interviewer the questions rather than narrowing the field with a very specific question right off the bat. Of course, this depends on the person being interviewed and the purpose for the interview, but with that said, Willie seemed like one who liked to tell stories.

Sometimes the interviewee can give an answer to a better question than the interviewer even thought to ask. It's ironic really. So by asking a more general question, you are thus supplying more potential questions for yourself if you're the interviewer. And this is in addition to having a rich answer to the initial question. This last piece (a rich answer to the initial question) relates to the point I made earlier; leaving room for the interviewee to answer in a way that's natural for them. In this case, given that you would only be asking one question, this idea applies.

So, back to my question for you, what would your ONE question be?


Michael Gray said...

Well since I'm as interested in the man as the musician, my question would be: "Willie, can you tell me a bit about your Florida life?" Maybe then he'd have told me not just about his professional life down there playing for tourists in the winters but about the Florida wife and son that Kate says Willie had told her about but never let her meet. Of course Kate could have been spinning a tale for the sake of it (she often did) but when she span it for 1970s researchers they never asked her any follow-up questions. Potentially major information lost forever, it would seem...

Thanks for your own question, by the way: and I agree with you about how to approach an interview.