Monday, June 11, 2007

`My Life Been a Doggone Curse'

My oldest son periodically sends me anthologies of songs he likes and that he assumes I will also enjoy. His selection is always eclectic and includes a cut or two I’ve never heard. Last week’s disc was heavy on blues – “This Old Fool,” by Buddy Guy; “Tell Me,” Howlin’ Wolf; “The Woman I’m Loving, She’s Taken my Appetite,” Lightnin’ Hopkins; “Mother Earth,” Memphis Slim; “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Muddy Waters; “Stack O’ Lee Blues,” Mississippi John Hurt.

He also included Hüsker Dü, Mothers of Invention, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan, Otis Redding, Fats Domino, Neil Young, the Everly Brothers, etc. But Joshua knows my love for the blues, and I in turn envy his ease of availability when I remember trying to collect blues records in the 1960s. Middle-class white kids like me discovered these sounds out of Mississippi, by way of Chicago and London, and only slowly and incompletely did record companies supply the demand for Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Bukka White and the musicians I cited earlier. One bluesman whom I didn’t hear of until much later, and then only thanks to Bob Dylan, was Blind Willie McTell, whose name Dylan gave to one of his greatest songs in 1983. Ten years later, Dylan covered McTell’s “Broke Down Engine” on World Gone Wrong. On the CD Joshua sent me he burned McTell’s “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues,” which includes these lyrics (courtesy of about a gambler named Jesse dying after the police shoot him:

“He had a gang of crapshooters and gamblers at his bedside
Here are the words he had to say
Guess I ought to know
Exactly how I wants to go (How you wanna go, Jesse?)
Eight crapshooters to be my pallbearers
Let 'em be veiled down in black
I want nine men going to the graveyard, Bubba
And eight men comin' back
I want a gang of gamblers gathered 'round my coffin-side
Crooked card printed on my hearse
Don't say the crapshooters'll never grieve over me
My life been a doggone curse”

The song amounts to a 12-bar short story, like a chapter lifted from Faulkner’s Sanctuary, and McTell’s voice, unusually precise and well enunciated for a blues singer of his time and place, serves it well. McTell captures the bravado of a little man (later in the lyric he’s called “Little Jesse”) on his deathbed. In the essay “Dylan as Historian,” collected in The Dustbin of History, Greil Marcus writes of Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”:

“It’s long been obvious that Bob Dylan can no longer be listened to as any sort of avatar; `Blind Willie McTell’ makes it clear that his greatest talent is for bringing home the past, giving it flesh – and proving, as the ethnologist H.L. Goodall, Jr., puts it, that `in addition to the lives we lead we also live lives we don’t lead.’ Art is made partly to reveal those lives – to take their lead. And this is what happens in `Blind Willie McTell.’”

McTell reveals Little Jesse’s life as Dylan reveals McTell’s. In 2004, New York Review Books reissued Constance Rourke’s American Humor, first published in 1931, with a new introduction by Marcus. In her chapter on minstrelsy, written when McTell was 30 years old, she writes:

“Defeat could be heard in the occasional minor key and in the smothered satire. Hitherto the note of triumph had been unmistakable and unremitting among American comic characters. The sudden extreme of nonsense was new, and the tragic undertone was new.”

McTell died of a stroke in 1959, in Milledgeville, Ga., where Flannery O’Connor lived and where Oliver Hardy had operated the town’s first movie theater, in 1910.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

I discovered Blind Willie about twenty years ago, by accident, picking up a used LP in a store because it seemed interesting. It blew me away at the time. I immediately went into Research Mode, as I sometimes do when the fire is lit under my interest, and tracked down three other LPs, all of which I still have. There's also an LP of McTell with Memphis Minnie; they share songs, McTell accompanies her, etc. Great stuff.

Thanks for mentioning a great artist who lots of folks still haven't discovered.