Bob Dylan

Blind Willie McTell

Song Review by

One of Bob Dylan's absolute masterpieces, "Blind Willie McTell" is the jewel of The Bootleg Series and arguably one of the finest songs ever written. Recorded in 1983 for the album Infidels, it was deemed superfluous to requirements, and all that remains is one take of the song with a full band (yet to be officially released) and this haunting demo, with Dylan playing piano with accompaniment from Mark Knopfler. The song, while alluding to many blues songs and spirituals, essentially tracks the history of America backwards, with Dylan ruminating at the end of each verse, "I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell." The poetry of the song lyrics is quite staggering; the song opens with the exquisite "Seen the arrow on the doorpost/Saying this land is condemned/All the way from New Orleans/to Jerusalem/I traveled through East Texas/Where many martyrs fell/And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell." Writing in popular music has rarely been so poetic or evocative. Further on in the song, Dylan alludes to "slavery ships" and "plantations burning," phrases you might associate with a particularly literate Mississippi John Hurt or, indeed, Blind Willie McTell himself. Indeed, after quoting the song's lyrics, the critic Michael Gray could only gasp "What a song!" before deconstructing its influences, which in structure can be traced to many songs authored by Blind Willie McTell. The performance is at times heartbreaking, at times strong with defiance. Dylan's rudimentary piano work is simply magnificent, and the melody, derived from the blues standard "St. James Infirmary," is impeccable. Without question one of the finest songs Dylan has ever written, it has, quite rightly, scarcely been touched by other artists. Only the Band has performed a successful version of it, albeit a reverential one. Dylan has often performed the song live on his Never Ending Tour, yet the power and poise of the original demo performance have never come within a mile of being equalled.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 1991 Columbia / Sony Music Distribution 5:52
Sounds of the Eighties: The Rolling Stone Collection, 1982-1983 1995
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 5:52
The Genuine Bootleg Series 1996
No Image 1997 Columbia / SME Records 7:01
The Essential Bob Dylan 2000 Columbia 0:00
Blues 2006 Columbia / Legacy 5:51
Dylan 2007 Legacy 5:54
Music & Photos 2013 Columbia 5:53