Comparing Blind Willie McTell
With copyright laws having changed dramatically in the UK not long ago, the number of vintage blues releases streaming from those shores has become even more staggering than in the past. It's also no secret that a number of UK labels have long been prominent in the reissue sweepstakes. Catfish Records has been quite busy over the past few years, and although there seems to have been a changing of the guard there, it didn't have an adverse effect on the recent release of their 3-CD box, The Definitive Blind Willie McTell. Catfish is the most recent label to add a multi-disc set of McTell recordings to their catalog, but prior to this, Document and Columbia also issued McTell sets. We'll look at some brief but important comparisons here.
Although he was born on May 5, 1901 to the McTier or McTear family, Blind Willie (Willie Samuel) somehow adopted McTell as a surname. It's not known for fact whether he was sighted at birth or not, but regardless of his visually impaired state, stories abound of his desire to travel and "see the country," and he was said to have had such intimate knowledge of cities and streets that he could guide strangers through Atlanta and New York. By using a walking cane or through a series of vocal "clicks," McTell seems to have known where he was by the sound that reverberated back from buildings, people, objects, and streets.
One of the first things an avid listener will find is that McTell used a highly visual writing style, often making references to what we so easily take for granted in our lives; explaining how sad it was to see his woman on the cooling board, writing and reading letters, or as Alan Balfour points out in his excellent notes that accompany the Document discs, "Big star fallin,' mama 'tain't long fo' day." In addition to his visual lyrics, he was also a guitarist of beautifully intricate abilities, whether finger picking and fretting or playing bottleneck style on his 12-string. He wasn't the flailing sort of player, but neither were his neighboring contemporaries; Barbecue Bob, Curley Weaver, and others. Yet as intricate as he proved himself at times, there's also a simplicity in his style that is immediately evident.
Unlike others who left recordings of sometimes disturbing quality, often
due to inferior pressing materials, McTell had recorded for Victor,
Columbia, Vocalion, and Decca, prior to 1940, and many of his masters
were found in remarkably good condition. Right out of the gate, the Catfish
set sounds crisp and mostly clean, and although a few small pops and
crackles are apparent, none of these detract from the overall listening
experience. A question of mastering techniques or sourcing for the Catfish
set does appear in [i]Come On Around To My House Mama,[/i] as the
track has what can best be described as a "slap-back" effect, something
that isn't present in Document's offering. The reason "source" becomes a
factor is due to the same sort of echo clearly audible in Columbia's
In comparative listening to both sets, aside from the flaw previously
mentioned, there seems to be a brighter "finish" to the Catfish tracks, and
while the Documents CD's aren't uncomfortable or sonically challenged in
any way, they do exhibit a bit less of a 'live' quality. Of course, this is
subjective to individual preference. If there's any way to do a "blindfold
test" before making your decision, it's recommended. Columbia's
Definitive set, although hardly definitive when compared to Catfish
and Document's releases, are also pleasant and unobtrusive. The
condition of source material plays a major role in what a finished product
will sound like, and with McTell's recordings in far better shape than Son
House or Charley Patton's Paramount 78's, McTell sounds as if he might
have recorded these tracks in the 1950's, not between 1927 and
With that being said, the remainder of the new Catfish multi-disc set (two prior issues featured Charley Patton and Leadbelly) is a pleasure from most
every other angle, especially the five tracks missing from Document's somewhat (In)Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order.
The Catfish box houses two takes each of Love Makin' Mama, Death Room Blues, Lord, Send Me An Angel, and Broke Down Engine
No. 2 while Document includes only one take of each title, while they also left Dirty Mistreater out of their issues. For completists, this
should certainly be a major consideration point as you'll need to purchase additional discs in Document's catalog to find them. With fellow Atlantan,
Curley Weaver aboard for a number of tracks in a backing role, as well as Ruby Glaze and other guests, the music on each set is remarkable and
Liner notes deserve mention for those interested in McTell's history, and
indeed, all three sets exhibit varied approaches. The knock-down winning
vote goes to Columbia for David Evans' extensive observations which
cover fourteen of the booklet's twenty-four pages. Each of the three
Document CD's include a short four-page sleeve with Alan Balfour keenly
remarking about McTell's masquerades as "Blind Sammie" and "Hot Shot
Willie" when he recorded for different labels, as well as focusing on the
varied guitar arrangements. Keith Briggs covers McTell for the Catfish set,
and while their twenty-four page booklet offers sharp graphics and a fine
array of photographs, the notes don't offer the detailing of the Columbia
and Document releases.
In the final analysis, with Document's three discs retailing for more than the
Catfish box, which has the added five tracks and perhaps a bit finer sound
overall, there's little question as to where the better bargain rests. If you're
not in need of the entire McTell catalog spanning 1927 through 1935,
Columbia's double would be a great start. Document's packaging has no
gloss, it's all simple and straight-forward; the images shown are the front
CD sleeves, there are two pages of notes inside, and the back of the
sleeve lists recording details. The Catfish box is designed sharply where
each disc is housed in a tight slip case, each one sporting a different
photo of McTell, and all three discs, plus the booklet, neatly fit inside the
heavy cardboard box.
The Definitive Blind Willie McTell
3-CD Box, 74 tracks, 222 minutes.
Writin' Paper Blues/Stole Rider Blues/Mama 'Taint Long Fo' Day/Mr.
McTell Got The Blues/Mr. McTell Got The Blues/Three Women
Blues/Dark Night Blues/Statesboro Blues/Loving Talking Blues/Atlanta
Strut/Travelin' Blues/Come On Around To My House Mama/Kind
Mama/Teasing Brown/Drive Away Blues/This Is Not The Stove To Brown
Your Bread/Love Changing Blues/Talkin' To Myself/Razor Ball/Southern
Can Is Mine/Broke Engine Blues/Stomp Down Rider/Scarey Day
Blues/Rough Alley Blues/Experience Blues/Painful Blues[*]
Low Rider's Blues/Georgia Rag/Low Down Blues/Rollin' Mama
Blues/Lonesome Day Blues/Mama Let Me Scoop For You/Searching the
Desert For the Blues/Warm It Up To Me/It's Your Time To Worry/It's A
Good Little Thing/You Was Born To Die/Dirty Mistreater/Lord Mercy If You
Please/Don't You See How This World Made A Change/Savannah
Mama/Broke Down Engine/Broke Down Engine No. 2/Broke Down Engine
No. 2/My Baby's Gone/Love Makin' Mama/Love Makin' Mama/Death Room
Blues/Death Cell Blues[*]Disc Three:
Lord, Send Me An Angel/Lord, Send Me An Angel/B And O Blues No. 2/B
And O Blues No. 2/Weary Hearted Blues/Bell Street Lightnin'/Southern
Can Mama/Runnin' Me Crazy/East St. Louis Blues (Fare You Well)/Ain't It
Grand To Be A Christian/We Got To Meet Death One Day/We Got To
Meet Death One Day/Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around/I Got Religion,
I'm So Glad/Dying Gambler/God Don't Like It/Bell Street Blues/Let Me
Play/Lay Some Flowers On My Grave/Ticket Agent Blues/Cold Winter
Day/Your Time To Worry/Cooling Board Blues/Hillbilly Willie's Blues
Complete Recorded Works - Volume 1 / 2 / 3
69 tracks, 209 minutes.
Writin' Paper Blues/Stole Rider Blues / Mama, 'Tain't Long Fo' Day/Mr.
McTell Got The Blues (tk. 1)/Mr. McTell Got The Blues (tk. 2)/ Three
Women Blues/Dark Night Blues/Statesboro Blues/Loving Talking
Blues/Atlanta Strut/Travelin' Blues/Come On Around To My House
Mama/Kind Mama/Teasing Brown*/Drive Away Blues/ This Is Not The
Stove To Brown Your Bread*/Love Changing Blues/Talkin' To
Myself/Razor Ball/ Southern Can Is Mine/Broke Down Engine Blues/
Stomp Down Rider/Scarey Day Blues (*Harris And Harris)
Rough Alley Blues*/Experience Blues*/Painful Blues*/Low Rider's
Blues/Georgia Rag/Low Down Blues*/Rollin' Mama Blues/Lonesome Day
Blues/Mama, Let Me Scoop For You/Searching The Desert For The
Blues/Warm It Up To Me/It's Your Time To Worry/It's A Good Little
Thing/You Was Born To Die/Lord Have Mercy If You Please/Don't You
See How This World Made A Change/Savannah Mama/Broke Down
Engine/Broke Down Engine No. 2 (take 3)/My Baby's Gone/Love-Makin'
Mama (take 1)/Death Room Blues (take 2)/Death Cell Blues/Lord, Send
Me An Angel (take 1) (*Ruth Willis)
B And O Blues No. 2 (take 1)/B And O Blues No. 2 (take 2)/Weary Hearted
Blues/Bell Street Lightnin'/Southern Can Mama/Runnin' Me Crazy/East St.
Louis Blues (Fare You Well)/Ain't It Grand To Be A Christian/We Got To
Meet Death One Day (take A)/We Got To Meet Death One Day (take
B)/Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around/I Got Religion, I'm So Glad/Dying
Gambler/God Don't Like It/Bell Street Blues/Let Me Play With Yo'
Yo-Yo/Lay Some Flowers On My Grave/Ticket Agent Blues/Cold Winter
Day/Your Time To Worry/Cooling Board Blues/Hillbilly Willie's Blues
The Definitive Blind Willie McTell
2-CD Set, 41 tracks, 125 minutes.
Atlanta Strut/Travelin' Blues/Come On Around To My House Mama/Kind
Mama/Talking To Myself/Razor Ball/Southern Can Is Mine/Broke Down
Engine Blues/Stomp Down Rider/Scarey Day Blues/Rough Alley
Blues/Experience Blues/Painful Blues/Low Rider's Blues/Georgia Rag/Low
Down Blues/Warm It Up To Me/It's Your Time To Worry/It's A Good Little
Thing/You Was Born To Die/Dirty Mistreater
Lord Have Mercy If You Please/Don't You See How This World Made A
Change/Savannah Mama/Broke Down Engine/Broke Down Engine No.
2/My Baby's Gone/Love Makin' Mama #1/Love Makin' Mama #2/Death
Room Blues #1/Death Room Blues #2/Death Cell Blues/Lord Send Me An
Angel #1/Lord Send Me An Angel #2/B & O Blues #2 #1/B & O Blues
#2/Weary Hearted Blues/Bell St. Lightnin'/Southern Can Mama/Runnin'
Me Crazy/East St. Louis Blues (Fare You Well)
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