Born in the early years after the end of World War II, I was aware that the dominant mood was relief that it was over, sadness at those lost and most importantly a forward looking attitude to improve things and not simply to get back to what life had been like before. The traces of the conflict were all around me in once blitzed Birmingham – in the barren, levelled ‘wastelands’ where streets had once stood, in the austerity, and the monotonous and monochrome drabness of couture and cuisine. To my boyish mind, “the war” was a shared community experience, a shadow which few, I now recall, talked about; but also, the stuff of puerile fantasies fostered by comic books, Airfix models, and patriotic movies that were literally and figuratively black and white.
Life was not all roses in those immediate post-war years, but better by far than what went before. Rationing was still in place when I was born in Birmingham in 1949, not ending until 1954. Young men still had to do their national service (the last call up was in 1960, the year I started Secondary school). We lived with our aunt in a cold-water, back-alley walk-up on the border of Balsall Heath (just inside Moseley, a ‘better’ suburb). Aunty Mary was my mother’s mother’s sister. When her sister died and daddy Paddy ran off with another women, Mary brought the six children over to Birmingham from Enniscorthy, County Wexford one by one. She had come to Birmingham from Ireland before the war, after her husband had run off (these things happened in Catholic Ireland). And she lived in that same old house right through the Blitz when German bombers regularly targeted The Second City’s engineering, motor and arms factories, and not a few public buildings including the Piccadilly and Waldorf cinemas on nearby Stratford Road.
I was born in her house. She had a friend who had once given birth, so that friend was the midwife. My brothers followed over the next two years. By then, National Health Service had kicked in, so they were born in hospital. Childbirth, forever dangerous, was now rendered less life threatening. There we all lived, three kids, our folks, three uncles, two aunts, a dog and a cat. Three bedrooms, girls in one, boys in another, and our family in the third. Outside loo and coal shed, no bathroom or hot water (we kids bathed in the kitchen sink and grown- ups went down to The Baths), Cold and damp, and close to the shops. And there we lived until, in 1956 when a council house in Yardley Wood became our first family home. Cold and colder running water that froze in winter, but it was at least inside the house; bathroom with hot water boiled in a big gas boiler; and an outside flush lavatory that was nevertheless immediately adjacent to the backdoor and not down the garden. A big garden too, for winter and spring vegetables, and summer camp-outs.
There we grew, with free medical treatment for all our ailments, and free optical and dental care. I still have crooked teeth – no fancy orthodontics on the NHS – but I have all my teeth still. And my eyesight. We were educated, for free. This came in during the war with the Butler Act. So, thanks to the Welfare State, we were housed and healthy enough to get to primary school and beyond. Once there, we had free books, free pens and paper, and compulsory sport, and doctors and nurses would turn up on a regular basis to check our vitals. And thus, we were able to reach the glorious ‘sixties ready to rock ‘n roll.
Which brings me by a circuitous route to British director Ken Loach’s 2013 documentary, The Spirit of ’45, a celebration of the radical changes that took place under the Labour government of Clement Attlee which came to power in 1945.
What a year that was! No sooner had the war ended, than the British electorate voted out its esteemed and beloved war leader, Winston Churchill, and bought Labour’s promise of a democratic socialism. Drawing on archive footage, and presented in black and white with contemporary interviews with dockers and miners, doctors and nurses, politicians and economists, Loach describes the nationalisation of the public services, and their subsequent privatisation three decades later. His interviewees provide poignant anecdotes about the poverty of the 1930s, dangerous and exploitative working conditions, poor housing, and abysmal health care, and the renewed sense of purpose and optimism after the end of the war and Labour’s landslide victory. He recounts the subsequent expansion of the welfare state, with its free to all medical service, and the nationalization of significant parts of the British economy, most notably, electricity, the railways, and the mines.
The Attlee government was elected due to a general belief that nothing would or could be as it had been before. Britain had pulled together to win the war; now, it would transform the peace. This was The ‘Spirit’ of ’45.
But whilst ‘spirit’ can imply ‘esprit’ and elation, it can also mean ‘ghost’ insofar as Loach rages against the death of all that hope, optimism, and vision in the decades that followed.. It is a call to arms for a return to the public unity of those heady post-war years and against the policies of subsequent governments, and most particularly those of Margaret Thatcher, that have progressively demolished the Britain that Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan strove to build. And it is a reminder that the NHS is worth fighting for at a time when it is being progressively dismantled. With stills of modern soup kitchens and the Occupy movement camped outside St Paul’s, Loach clearly believes that Occupy inherits that spirit of ’45.
Viewing The Spirit of ’45 was exhilarating. It was full of Wow! moments. The footage of the poverty of the depression years, the slum dwellings, urchin children playing on the streets or on the slag heaps, the unemployment queues, the scavenging for coal, the Jarrow March. Diseases now preventable or eradicated, then mortal. Five in a bed, and two of them dead. Malnutrition and rickets. Bread and dripping sandwiches? You needed beef for dripping. Fat chance. It was bread and jam, thank you (and grateful for it, one was tempted to respond – there were indeed some Monty Python moments there, particularly the one-down-manship sketch “when I was a lad, we were so poor…”
Relying so heavily on memories and reminiscences, the film is nostalgic, sentimental, and simplistic even, with little in-depth analysis. A tick-a-box of the many innovations that greeted the arrival of the baby boomers. Presented in such a clear and uncluttered fashion, it was quite stirring. That is Ken Loach for you. What you see is what you get: a one-sided history lesson.
The film leaps from the Attlee government straight into the darkest days of the Thatcher government, with no discussion of the political, economic and social changes and challenges in between. The road from Clement to Maggie was an eventful and for many, a traumatic one. The Counter Revolution took decades to establish itself. The great experiment of 1945 contained the seeds of its own destruction.
Loach’s focus on the years of nationalization and privatization makes narrative and dramatic sense.
But the years in between were dramatic also. Read Dominic Sandbrook’s great quartet. The titles say it all: Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles; White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties; State of Emergency; The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974; and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979. These were best of times, these were the worst of times, as the Great Man might have said. And the worst was to come, when Britain apparently went down the gurgler, and Thatcher had to break it to fix it. And like Dr Frank’s monster, it did not quite come back together right.
The Spirit of ’45 received favourable reviews (one follows), most writers qualifying their praise with Loach’s unapologetic partisanship – he is Ken Loach, after all, and you either dig him or you don’t. My favourite film is his 1995 Spanish Civil War drama,Land and Freedom. And you most certainly don’t get a balanced view of that conflict from this. As with The Spirit of ’45, you just sit back and go for a revolutionary ride.
See also othet memories in In That Howling Infinite:
Ken Loach rarely makes documentaries, and when he does, they’re usually about an urgent topical issue, such as the 1980s miners’ strike (‘Which Side Are You On?’) or the 1990s Liverpool Dockers’ strike (‘The Flickering Flame’). On the surface, ‘The Spirit of ’45’ takes a longer view than those films. This rousing and saddening film reminds us of the air of progress and reconstruction that took hold in British politics immediately after World War II. It takes us right back to the founding of the welfare state and, with it, the nationalization of the health service, transport, energy, housing and other areas of public life, as initiated by Clement Attlee’s 1945-1951 Labour government. The faces we see at the beginning of the film of young Britons celebrating in the fountains at Trafalgar Square in May 1945 symbolize the hope of a nation: that things can only get better after six years of war.
But Loach, the director of ‘Kes’ and ‘Looking for Eric’, is equally concerned with the spirit of modern Britain. For him, the socialism of our past – of Attlee and his comrades Nye Bevan, Herbert Morrison and others – could teach the present a thing or two. And so the second part of ‘The Spirit of ’45’ ponders an altogether different mood than that in the 1940s: Thatcherism and the more recent failure of organised labour to live up to its founding principles. If ‘The Spirit of ’45’ might provoke David Cameron to raise his eyes skywards, it might also have Ed Miliband cowering behind an unwritten manifesto. Loach’s quiet, unforced position is that the left is equally guilty of abandoning the promise and passion of the post-war years.
Yet, as political essays go, this is a tender, soft and humane film. It’s a compelling mix of interviews, old and new, with archive footage, much of it from old newsreels and public information films. There’s no voice-over, just faces and voices – the voices of ageing nurses, doctors, miners, union officials and others, alongside a handful of economists and historians. Some of Loach’s arresting interviewees, like Sam Watts from Liverpool and the former Welsh miner Ray Davies, recall what poverty looked like in the 1930s, reminding us why the welfare state was necessary in the first place. Others, like a trio of nurses from Manchester and the Welsh GP Dr Julian Tudor Hart, remember the excitement and the work of the early NHS. In fact, the NHS emerges as one of the film’s chief concerns: it’s both the great survivor of the welfare state and the institution of that age currently facing the biggest threat from political decisions.
Ninety-odd minutes is not enough for this subject. There are inevitable omissions (no education, for example), and Loach makes a slightly jarring leap from a chronology of nationalization that speeds through the 1950s and ’60s to the 1979 election of Thatcher. But always apparent is his clear thesis and the infectious commitment and fervour of his interviewees. The film works all at once as a lament, a celebration and a wake-up call to modern politicians and voters.
Bob Dylan’s song, named for blues singer Blind Willie McTell, was recorded in 1983 for the Infidels album but was not released until 1991’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3. The melody is loosely based on St. James Infirmary Blues. Bob plays piano and Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler, twelve-string guitar. Although inexplicably excluded from Infidels, the song is now recognized as one of Dylan’s best.
He said of his song: “I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are ‘Picasso fans”.
Whatever the untold story, Bob Dylan captures its essence in the following quote from Greil Marcus’ masterful telling of the story behind Dylan’s memorable collaboration with The Band in the sessions that became The Basement Tapes, The Invisible Republic: “I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death”
Blind Willie McTell is Dylan’s historical equivalent of his A Hard Rains Gonna Fall, a graphic compendium of images, not of an impending apocalypse this time, but of scenes from America’s harrowing history. More specifically, it is history of The South, a South that you don’t see in Gone With The Wind.
In 1936, Margaret Mitchell wrote: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind”.
There is no such romantic reverie in Dylan’s song. It is a journey to through America’s heart of darkness. As Leonard Cohen wrote in Democracy, America is “the cradle of the best and the worst”. And Dylan dwells on the latter.
As with all Dylan songs, commentators and aficionados have pondered the breadth and the depth of the lyrics. I reprint some of their thoughts below, if you have the time and the curiosity. But first, here the lyrics, followed by some of my own thoughts.
Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
Well, I heard that hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
It is my fancy that the song opens with an arrow thumping into a door post – an archetypical image from many Westerns, movies that Dylan has often referenced – a signal that bad things are about to happen. There is a message attached to the arrow, another movie trope, a message of prophetic warning. Mankind has been weighed and found wanting. My good friend Malcolm Harrison says “no way!”. The arrow is ON the doorway, not IN it, offering directions. More likely, the arrow echoes the blood of lambs daubed on the Israelites’ doors protecting them as the Angel of Death passed over, forcing Pharoah to let the enslaved Chosen People go. As was Egypt condemned, so is America. The whole world, even, from New Orleans, music Mecca at the end of the Mississippi, the River of Song flowing through the heartland of The Blues from Nashville and Memphis in Tennessee, to the Gulf of Mexico. To fabled Jerusalem, a city of the mind and heart as much as of this earth.
The narrator travels through East Texas, literally the borderland where the South ends and the West begins. It was also The Frontier, where the West was won. The fallen martyrs could be any the souls who perished here. Soldiers and settlers, Indians and slaves, the nameless dead of the wars with Mexico, the American Civil War, and the Indian Wars, the dead of the expansion westward and of the indigenous resistance to it, or casualties of Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression.
He then takes us out beyond City Limits to the to the realm of Midnight Ramblers and Hoochy Coochie Men, fast guns and fast women, traveling circuses and honky-tonks, itinerant preachers and gospel tents. This was another ‘frontier’, a no-man’s-land where the laws of man and morality did not run.
And then, to the dark side of Dixie. Slavery was America’s Original Sin, a stain running through its technicolor grain. Carried to captivity from Africa; taken aboard ship to the New World, and placed in bondage. Four hundred years of slavery end ending in civil war and a wasteland. And yet there was still another hundred years of toiling towards true freedom. As Martin Luther King said, “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what were gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t where we was”.
The Civil War and its aftermath. Crime and punishment. Sin and corruption. Trial and retribution. There are the winners with their fine clothes and bad habits, and the losers who end up working on the chain gang, another archetypical American image. And finally, that rebel yell echoing down the years. It used to be said that the South would rise again. It did, and indeed, some reckon, the South finally won the war.
The song ends where is started with the accusing prophecy. The road to heaven’s gate is a rocky one indeed. The back story is the decline and fall of civilizations, viewed through the fall of Man and the expulsion from The Garden. Race and slavery, sin and corruption, crime and punishment, trial and retribution, and the condemnation of all. Does the narrator sit in the famous hotel, watching the world pass by, or has he been imagining the passing parade he has described in the song? Is he a mere observer or is he a seer?
The Band did a great cover of Blind Willie McTell on their 1993 Jericho album.
The Darker Meanings In A Bob Dylan Masterpiece
Sean Wilentz, The Beast, 09.05.2010
The Power Station studio is hushed; there is a barely audible footfall, then Dylan strikes a single piano key. It is a quiet but stark call to musical order. Mark Knopfler softly, exquisitely picks an acoustic guitar in the background, then joins in; Bob Dylan hits a quick pair of somber E- flat minor chords, sketches two measures of melody, and begins to sing, wearily: “Seen the arrow on the door po-ost, sayin’ this land is condemned.” Twenty years after A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, he has written another of his many songs that traverse appalling sights and sounds. Almost right away, it is obvious that the melody of Blind Willie McTell comes from St. James Infirmary– the same melody that dominates Blind Willie McTell’s own The Dyin’Crapshooter’s Blues—with possibly just a touch of Frédéric Chopin’s Marche Funèbre.
Recording the song has been giving Dylan difficulty. Three complete takes from the first day of work on the album, with his entire ensemble, don’t work, and neither do two complete takes from the seventh Infidels session. Now, after a grueling three weeks of recording sessions, working six days a week, Dylan returns to Blind Willie McTell and attempts to rediscover it at the piano, much as he attempted in 1966 after he lost “She’s Your Lover Now.” With Knopfler playing beside him, his foot quietly tapping out the time, Dylan runs through the entire song, slowly, but fails to reconnect: whatever he had once heard in his head is gone. Infidels would appear later in the year without Blind Willie McTell and the recording of Dylan and Knopfler’s studio run-through would circulate as a demo tape for possible use by other performers, until it finally appeared in 1991 on an official three-CD retrospective of rare Dylan performances and outtakes. Only then did listeners learn that Dylan had recorded a masterpiece.
Dylan’s revision of the second line describes a yearning for life everlasting—but also humankind’s blasphemous disregard for the separation of heaven and earth.
The arrow on the doorpost that the singer sees when the song begins is a sign. It might protect the home inside, much as doorway signs of lamb’s blood protected the enslaved Israelites in the Passover story. It might mark the household as righteous and observant, like the Jewish mezuzah, affixed to the doorposts of the pious in accord with the holy injunctions in Deuteronomy. But it certainly signifies that the land as a whole is condemned. Which land? “All the way from New Or- leeans to Je- ru- sa- lem,” Dylan sings. The land where blacks were enslaved; the land where the Israelites ruled only to be cast out and oppressed, and where Herod, in trying to kill the Christ child, massacred the innocents: these lands and all the lands between them, the whole world over, are damned.
The singer suddenly tells of traveling through East Texas, home to Blind Lemon Jefferson, though not to McTel, “where many martyrs fell.” The martyrs could be, as the word normally connotes, holy victims, or they could be broken slaves and lynched freedmen, or even Confederate and Union soldiers, or soldiers from the war against Mexico, or the fallen fighters at the Alamo. Or they might include John F. Kennedy. Or they could be all of these. And what does the singer know from these sights and travels? That “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”
The next verse thrusts us into Willie McTell’s world. The singer recalls hearing a hoot owl singing late at night, after some sort of show had ended and the tents were being struck and folded. (They could be revival show tents or medicine show circus tents; McTell had connections to both.) Yet even though the singer heard the owl, a symbol of wisdom and victory in ancient Greece, although in other cultures a symbol of bad luck and evil – nobody else did; the owl’s only audience was the stars above the barren trees. By contrast, one can only imagine that an enthusiastic crowd cheered the charcoal gypsy maidens, strutting their feathers, whom the singer recalls next. It seems that the tent show was a lusty one, with swaggering black chorus girls who might have stepped out of “The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”—although Dylan himself had performed with his own soulful black maidens, who were also, at various times, his lovers. In the American South, the lines between one kind of show and the other – Holy Rollers and hoochie-coochie- had always been blurry; indeed, one sometimes followed the other on the same night. But no matter because, finally, Dylan sings, “ No-bu-dee can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”
Now sunk in deepest Dixie, the song moves backward in time, not forward through space, and the singer doesn’t just relate what he finds, but calmly bids us to look for ourselves: See them big plantations burnin’, Hear the cracking of the whips,Smell that sweet magnolia bloomin’, See the ghosts- uuuuuuuuuvv slavery ships.
From the Civil War and slavery’s Armageddon back to slavery times, cruelty cracked while lush beauty bloomed, and in back of it all stood the shades of the deathly Middle Passage. Suddenly, though, time has slipped again: these are ghosts, not the ships or slaves themselves, and the singer tells of how he can still “hear them tribes a- moanin’” and hear the undertaker’s bell ringing. The moaning tribes are the tribes of Africans being sold into slavery, but they could also be the moaning Africans of today, or the ancient enslaved tribes of Israel, or any suffering tribe you choose, at any time you choose. And though the undertaker’s bell tolled all over the slave South, that bell has tolled forever, and it tolls for everyone. And still – still – the singer repeats, “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”
Now the song flashes on other southern scenes, and Dylan’s voice rises in revulsion. A woman, who seems to know exactly what’s up, is down by the riverside with a fine young man, dressed to the nines, who is carrying a bottle of bootleg whiskey (the song does not say whether they are black or white, because they could be either). Up on the highway, a convict chain-gang toils and sweats. The singer can hear rebel yells. And now he knows no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. An instrumental break sets off the singer’s tale of his journey from his final reflections. Atop Knopfler’s strums and liquid licks, Dylan plays a jumpy piano, banging out the chorus with doubled-up, backbeat chords.
Then he sings: “Well, God is in His heaven, And we all want what’s His.” As performed on the session tape, the lines echo the famous conclusion of the poet Robert Browning’s Pippa’s Song – “God’s in His heaven – All’s right with the world!”, by which Browning really meant that despite all of the evil and vicious injustice in the world, it is still possible to have faith in God. But as rendered in Dylan’s official book of lyrics, Well God is in heaven”. The lines echo the Bible and convey a darker message. “God is in heaven, and thou upon earth,” reads Ecclesiastes 5:2. Dylan’s revision of the second line describes a yearning for life everlasting- but also humankind’s blasphemous disregard for the separation of heaven and earth. Continuing in a biblical vein, the song explains that in this world, all is vanity, and “power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.” And there is still another possibility, just as close to Dylan’s preoccupations and the historical themes of “Blind Willie McTell”: “But God is in Heaven, and Grant in the Town, And Right through might is Law, God’s way adore,” Herman Melville wrote in one of his poems in Battle Pieces, describing the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, and the conclusion of the Civil War. The singer has seen, heard, and smelled unspeakable things, in the past and in the present. He reports no redress and no redemption, even in Jesus Christ; the only sign he sees of the Lord’s true and righteous judgment is an arrow marking condemnation of a heedless world riddled with greed, corruption, and the lust for power. And with that the singer concludes, gazing out a hotel window, his voice rising again, as if to give himself and his listeners something to hold on to, proclaiming one last time the one thing that he really knows, that “ no one can sing the blu- oo-ues like Blind Will-ah-ee McTe-uhl.” All he has left is the song and its singer.
Dylan and Knopfler play two more verses of instrumental, slowing and swelling at the end, and the performance concludes with a softly ringing harmonic and quick single note from Knopfler’s guitar. There the studio life of “Blind Willie McTell” ended for Dylan. It was May 5, 1983—which, as best anyone can tell, but unknown to everyone at the Power Station, would have been Blind Willie McTell’s 80th birthday.
(Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University whose books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 and Bob Dylan in America, Doubleday 2010)
Others have a different view. Tony Attwood wrote on November 12, 2008 on bob-Dylan.org.uk
I suspect that for most of us, Blind Willie McTell was the name of a blues singer whose music we had never heard of. I suspect also that for most of us it is unimaginable that such a wonderful piece of music should not appear on a mainstream album from Bob Dylan.
There have been other instances of such oddness on Dylan’s part – the delay in releasing Mississippi, for example, and the issues surrounding Dignity. In the case of the former, the original version was a love song that Dylan didn’t want to reveal – and he had to wait until he had re-written it as a political commentary. In the latter case, the piece is flawed. It is a masterpiece, but it isn’t right (as the multiple attempts to play it in different ways show. In effect it is hard to find the right way to cope with the piece – but more on that when I move on to that song)
But Blind Willie McTell falls into neither category. It is not only a perfect song, with not a word out of place, the classic recording that we have is itself wonderful. The slightly out of time piano works. The guitars work. Why not release it?
The first insight I can offer is that the song has nothing to do with the music of Blind Willie McTell. My source, Atlanta Strut, is a fine collection, and I am told it is representative of Willie McTell’s work. But it raises the question – what is the connection between the songs of McTell’s and Dylan’s song. In fact, on the surface there isn’t a connection. He’s not singing at all about McTell – it is just a throw away line in the song, that no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. Where is the connection between the famous line about “power and greed and corruptible seed” and a song like “I got religion and I’m so glad”.
Musically, Dylan’s song is a true masterpiece – although in effect a borrowed masterpiece. Back to strophic form, as it has to be for a song about the blues, it never tires through verse after verse, because of the unusual chord structure.
So we are edged towards the references to Willie McTell being a reference to the whole issue of slavery, and the music of the slaves and their descendants. “There’s a chain gang on the highway”… the humiliation of the people continues generation to generation. But even here it doesn’t quite work – because if humiliation is the theme, then Blind Willie McTell isn’t the man to cite.
In the end, we get a clue as to where we are going, appropriately, at the end…
And that is the clue. St James Hotel was nothing to do with Willie McTell – except McTell did record the song St James Infirmary Blues (on which Dylan’s tune is based) under the title Dying Crapshooter’s Blues. The melody is a derivative, and I suspect Dylan wasn’t too happy with that fact, which probably explains why he didn’t put it on an album.
Whatever the costume Dylan wishes to don – folk troubadour, confessional songwriter, country crooner, tough bluesman, Beatnik rock and roller – his music always carries with it a vital understanding of roots music. The best folk songs sound modern but they also sound like they could’ve been written a hundred years ago. And that is the crux of Dylan’s music; that essence which places it not in a time period or genre but into the larger continuum of the American music tradition.
If any song by Bob Dylan fully exemplifies the above, it’s Blind Willie McTell. It was recorded for but curiously left off of 1983’s Infidels, an album warmly received for its return to secular themes after Dylan’s much-reviled gospel period. Religious overtones still find their way into the subject matter however. The version I’ll be discussing in this article is actually a demo; a take that Dylan recorded with a full band has yet to be officially released. Since I don’t own a would-be illegal copy of it, the full-band version will remain untouched in this article. Dylan aficionados being the notorious bootleggers that they are, (I’m not kidding; they were actually the first fan base to circulate bootlegs on a widespread level starting in the 60’s) the song found its way onto unofficial tapes and quickly became of Dylan’s most popular compositions among his fans and colleagues. The man himself never performed it live until he heard a cover by the Band, but since then it has become a concert staple for the “Never Ending Tour.”
So what makes Blind Willie McTell such a powerful song that deserves to be heard outside the circle of Dylanologists arguing over who exactly is “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood?” It’s the very subject matter of the song itself; a damning of America’s troubled past and the redeeming music that emerges from those who have suffered the most. Dylan imbues the song with a sense of timelessness in two important ways. First, he adopts the melody from “St. James Infirmary Blues,” an American folk song about a man who finds his lover lying dead in a hospital as a result of their morally questionable actions. This already connects the song to the rest of Americana by doing what people have been doing for hundreds of years; taking old songs and changing them. (St. James Infirmary Blues is itself adapted from an an English folk song known as The Unfortunate Rake). As I’ll discuss later, it also ties into the larger theme of the song itself. The second thing Dylan does to make the song mythic in scope is weaving the narrator’s perspective in and out of different periods of American history. This conveys to the listener that the cycle of pain and seeking relief from that pain through music is not unique to any time; it is something universal to the American experience.
Although not an outright gospel tune, religious imagery plays a key part in the lyrics. It becomes a framing device that Dylan uses to chastise America’s various ills in a manner similar to the way the narrator of “St. James” laments the sins that’ve brought their lover to death.
The last couplet ends each and every verse, tying together scenes of Civil War (There’s a chain gang on the highway, I can hear them rebels yell), debauchery (There’s a woman by the river With some fine young handsome man/. He’s dressed up like a squire, Bootlegged whiskey in his hand”), slavery (See them big plantations burning, Hear the cracking of the whips) and death (Hear the undertaker’s bell). Dylan’s vocals grow louder and louder by the end of each refrain. At the collapse of the last verse he’s practically howling the words, giving one of his best vocal performances. It is here where the song gets its name, but why is Blind Willie McTell mentioned at all? Again, Dylan is tying the song and the subject matter to Americana at large. The blues was developed in the Mississippi Delta, an expression of pain molded by the experiences of living in Jim Crow America. Blind Willie McTell is revered as one of the best of the original Delta blues singers (Dylan obviously thinks so) and thus the metaphor now becomes clear. Amidst the evils of America, it is in the music created by those affected that Dylan finds redemption. Even though he is blind, Willie McTell expresses the pain of living in America in a more beautiful and better way than most of those with sight. Another telling aspect are the last days of the blues singer’s life; after becoming a preacher, he never sang the blues again. But America is not yet at peace.
Religion enters the lyrics again during the last verse, and it is here that we find another link to St.James Infirmary Blues. St.James was a real place that opened as a hotel in New Orleans in 1859 and was later converted into a military hospital by Union troops during the Civil War. The lyric serves not only as a nod to “St. James” but also as a tie-in to the Civil War and the larger themes of death and the decay of America. Dylan’s last rendition of the refrain ends on a hopeful note, despite the apocalyptic overtones of the rest of the song. Even as the narrator is in bed dying at the St. James Hotel, he still manages to find meaning in Blind Willie McTell’s music. Whether the rest of us can find similar redemption in anything is the real question the song poses. It’s one that people have asked themselves throughout our nation’s history and is a vital part of what makes the song so haunting. Astounding for a piece of music that might’ve been thrown away forever, Blind Willie McTell is surely deserving of the accolades usually reserved for Bob Dylan’s more popular tunes.
You can find Blind Willie McTell on the Bootleg Series Volume 1–3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991, an officially released compilation of various Dylan bootlegs collected over the years. St. James Infirmary Blues has been covered by countless artists over the years, but the version that made the song famous was Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording. The White Stripes (also big fans of Blind Willie McTell, to which their first record is dedicated) have also released their own take on this classic folk song. Blind Willie McTell himself recorded around 70 songs over his lifetime and they are all available on various compilations. If you want to to dive right into the deep end, you get all three volumes of his Complete Recorded Works from Document Records.
First of all, what’s the arrow on the doorpost? I seem to remember hearing somewhere that stations on the Underground Railroad would paint arrows on their doorposts as secret identification to runaway slaves, but I’ve tried to confirm this in the local library with no success, so I could be completely imagining it. It would fit in real nice with slavery references later. Putting signs on doorposts obviously ties in with the blood of lambs on the Israelites’ doors (they were slaves, too) in Egypt, a land that, like the slaveholding South, was condemned.
Also, what’s significant about East Texas? I think he’s comparing the South to the Holy Land, dead slaves being equated to religious martyrs, all of which leads to Blind Willie McTell–in the song he’s not only a blues singer par excellance, but maybe something of a prophet as well. Blues singer as prophet – the only one able to fully express the horror and despair of what man is doing to man. But why East Texas in particular? McTell was from Atlanta, wasn’t he, so it’s not a reference to his stomping grounds.
Tents. Circus? Maybe a revival meeting, maybe a minstrel show? Maybe both (didn’t one usually follow the other, after the kids went to bed?). But in either case the owl is the one who really has something to say, and nobody’s listening–even the trees, his audience, are barren and desolate. Parallel between the owl and a prophet no one listens to, and with McTell. The choice of McTell is significant here, I think, in part because he’s not one of the most famous of bluesmen. I mean, he’s well-known in blues circles, and now among Dylan fans, but your average American, who may have heard of John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, etc., chances are doesn’t know McTell. I think Bob’s suggesting that not only is the bluesman a prophet, but he’s an unheeded one, like the owl.
The gypsy maidens. If the tents are from a minstrel show/juke joint type of scene, then these would be the dancers. “Strut their feathers well” is a wonderfully evocative image of sassy, erotic dancing, I take it, and maybe he also means that they were using feather boas like you see in old movies. And their dancing, too, in this context, is likely meant to express a certain desperation, a certain longing (lust being a hallowed component of even the most philosophical of blues), but even so, McTell expresses it better.
(The next verse) seems to kaleidoscope the whole history of American slavery into one series of vivid images. The plantations burning is the apocalyptic end of the institution of slavery in the Civil War. The cracking of the whips, though, contrasted to the sweet magnolia blooming, is the long period when slavery was practiced, to support the genteel society of the South. The slavery ships need no explanation, but the fact that they’re ghosts is significant: not only does this underscore the deadly nature of the ships, but it brings the listener back to the present, when those ships are long gone, but their effects still remain on American society. Tribes moaning takes us back to the very beginnings of slavery on the continent, when slavers broke up tribes and families, exploiting tribal enmities and loyalties. The undertaker’s bell casts a note of deathly finality over the whole verse’s reflections on slavery, and he concludes by once again insisting that the only one with power to fully deliver the burden of what has gone on (burden in the Old Testament sense of a message of prophecy) is Blind Willie McTell.
(Then)”There’s a woman by the river…” I think this woman and this man are what Bob elaborated on in Man in the Long Black Coat. The woman is by the river – a multifaceted image, as others have pointed out, in this case, I suspect it means mobility and escape. Could have just as easily been a road. The fine young handsome man is the Man in the Long Black Coat – alluring, groomed and handsome, but somehow sinister – the bootleg whiskey. What’s she doing with him? He’s alluring and sinister, ’nuff said. While they’re trying to escape the desperation of their lives, the world is still going to hell around them – the chain gang (slaves? prisoners? some kind of image of bondage) is at work on the highway, and the rebels (asserting their freedom, in direct contrast to the chain gang) are trying to split up the country. The rebel yell, too, is an echo of the blues song – a direct vocal expression of desperation, defiance, strong emotion. Inspiring, but scary if you’re a slave, in chains – where in the distance are the rebels, are they coming this way, and what have they got on their minds?
“Well God is in His heaven”…The conclusion of the whole matter, like it says in Ecclesiastes. We all want Heaven – but all we can seem to find is power, greed, and a wicked mankind. These relate to God – God has power, although it’s not the same as man’s political power to exploit; God has riches, although they’re spiritual and not the material ones that inspire greed; and God created man, that seed which, we find, is all too corruptible. ie. everybody talks about God, but their actions are just a parody of His nature. Case in point being all those ministers in the South who for hundreds of years maintained that God and the Bible justified the slave economy.
The St..James hotel? I’m sure the reference is also to James in the New Testament, but I confess I don’t get exactly what he means. This image brings us neatly back to the present, though, where the singer is contemplating all this evil and desperation, and realizes with a surety that no one at all can do it justice except Blind Willie McTell, prophet and bluesman. Oracles in Greece were supposed to be blind, weren’t they?
The intricate layers of irony in this song have been pointed out elsewhere, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them in this context. Throughout, the singer is protesting that only McTell can really sing the blues. But the singer is singing. Dylan is singing. In one of his best songs ever he’s protesting his inability to get it right (and then very coyly not releasing the song, protesting he never got it quite right). And even in the lyrics, he strictly confines himself to description, instead of the kind of open statements the blues excel in, as if to say, I can tell you what I see, but I can’t interpret it completely for you. Of course, telling us exactly is poetically the greater accomplishment, because it enables us to make the judgement.