Blind Willie McTell is unique among country bluesmen in having a 30-year recording career while remaining essentially an itinerant musician, and during his lifetime he was a familiar sight on the streets of Atlanta and other Southern cities as he performed his varied repertoire of blues, rags, and vaudeville pieces on his 12-string guitar. This two-disc collection assembles nearly 40 of his early 78s, including his signature tune, the magnificent "Statesboro Blues." Whether McTell actually wrote a lot of these songs (or merely adapted them) is unclear, but there is a sharp writer's eye at work here, as evidenced by lines like "Mother died and left me reckless/Daddy died and left me wild" (from "Statesboro Blues") or "I got the blues so bad/I can feel them in the dark" (from "Dark Night Blues"), and songs like "Dying Crapshooter's Blues" (which is based on elements from "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary") are thoroughly modern compositions in a cut-and-paste narrative style. These recordings feature the early McTell, when his voice was a high and expressive tenor. Toward the end of his life, McTell's voice deepened and grew rougher, the songs slowed down and became more world-weary, and since he recorded his standards several times over, it is interesting to compare early and later versions of songs like "Broke Down Engine Blues." The Essential is a fine introduction to this unique bluesman, but you'll want one of the later recordings as well in order to get the full balance of his work.
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett
Track Listing - Disc 1
feat: Ruth Willis
Track Listing - Disc 2