Tuesday, 20 January 2009


Willie McTell grew up, I believe, modelling himself partly upon the widely-respected black Statesboro GA headmaster William James. As I write in Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes:
"through his own determination and breadth of vision, William James built an institution in Statesboro that offered a far better standard of black education than its pupils could have expected, and received at least some support and encouragement from the rest of the town. What practical alternative route to betterment for blacks in the rural South could James have offered? Revolution? Working-class people have always seen education as a means of rising above their circumstances, and they've been right.

James also inspired by personal example. Everyone knew what he stood for and the dignity he personified. Willie never went to school [until he attended the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon as a young adult]... but when we picture the grown-up Willie McTell, whether as a blind man picking his way along Georgia's red-clay dirt roads or as a street singer in the big city, and then ask why he routinely wore the best clothes he could, and always wore a tie and that snazzy hat, isn't the answer the powerful example of William James?"

Just as surely as Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, or those who stood before them or behind them, Blind Willie McTell, who never ranted about either disability or race, was surely vindicated today. And would have been moved.

And to mention two other figures of grace and musicality, all hail to Aretha Franklin - another smart person in both senses (and with the best hat of anyone) - and Big Bill Broonzy. Who would have thought that they would hear his song lyrics quoted from the podium at the inauguration of a President of the United States of America?

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