Mockingbird friend Mark Miller has just released an amazing record called “Ain’t It Grand: The Gospel Songs of Blind Willie McTell.” It’s really quite astonishing – gospel blues of the highest order with some jaw-dropping slide guitar. Get your copy today, and then tell everyone you know! We need to support this very worthy project. The music speaks for itself, as do Mark’s powerful liner notes:
My fascination with the music and life of Blind Willie McTell began on a seemingly mundane Tuesday morning in September 2009. I was searching through my iTunes for songs when a title that both intrigued and humored me caught my eye. It was “Sending Up My Timbers” by Blind Willie McTell. Almost immediately, I fell in love with the lyrical wit, the complexity of the twelve-string guitar playing and the passion of McTell’s vocal performance. Within a couple of months, I was planning a recording session of Willie McTell’s songs.
McTell recorded 149 songs from 1927-1956. Hidden in the midst of his most famous blues compositions, such as “Statesboro Blues” and “Your Southern Can is Mine” are about a dozen profoundly simply gospel songs. Some are original while others are re-treatments of traditional spirituals. Although McTell did give up singing and playing the blues for gospel singing and preaching a few years before his death, his gospel songs come from every period of his creative output.
In McTell’s day there was a sharp contrast between the secular and the sacred. You would NEVER play the blues in church (it was the devil’s music) and you would NEVER disgrace a song from the church by playing it at a dance hall or fish fry. I think it was the fact that McTell wrote, played and sang with the same genius and conviction, whether he was recording “Savannah Mama” or his final gospel song “Pearly Gates”, that spurred my interest in him as a musician and a man. In the same way Ray Charles brought gospel/church music influences into his mainstream music (to much chagrins), McTell brought the raw and unbridled honesty of the blues into his gospel music:
I have come to believe that the blues and gospel music are very close cousins; I think I’ll go out on a limb and say maybe even brothers. I am not referring to musical fundamentals such as harmony, melody or rhythm, but more of the similarity of message. The heart and soul of the blues is that we have problems, we are “messed up”, we are suffering deeply and there is nothing we can do about it. The Gospel starts with the same proposition – we have a huge problem, we are really messed up, this life is full of suffering and nothing brings a permanent fix. But, thanks be to God it does not end there! Because of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for sinners and his bodily resurrection we are given hope for the here and now and the forever. Even though we are not given or promised a “blues-free” life, we are given hope, peace and forgiveness in the midst of it, and that is Good News.
McTell’s gospel songs are replete with the assurance of Heaven by the grace of God, while also being full of reminders that because of our depravity, if that same grace was not present for one moment, our lives would be in shambles. Hence on of my favorite lyrics “Savior if you ever live me I’ll die/(So) You hide me in thy bosom til’ the storm of life is over and rock me in the cradle of Your love.”
Bob Dylan famously wrote (and sang), “No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” and I whole-heartedly agree. But, a careful study of his life and music will show much more than just a legendary, highly admired, and oft-imitated bluesman. One will find a man after God’s own heart, full of flaws, but overflowing with the grace of God.