I recently finished Michael Gray's novel about the blues icon and local celebrity Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes . The book, a commentary on Mr. Gray's journey to gather information about Willie is laced with fascinating facts. Upon finishing the read with a better understanding of the man, I suddenly found this year's Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival fresh on my mind.
The 2010 festival included a diversity of Blues, Jazz, Americana and Roots Rock performers. Veteran Rock group Little Feat and emerging Americana star Justin Townes Earle were the headliners. From a music fan's view, the entire lineup of artists was stellar, but what about from a "blues" fan's view? Blues purists are a discriminating group and can be single minded when it comes to their musical tastes. Little Feat and JT Earle are not "traditional" blues acts. Was the show properly celebrating the life of the local blues man by having non-traditional blues acts performing?
The Activities Council of Thomson had previously announced its intentions to broaden the festivals musical direction but let's analyze this notion with Mr. McTell himself in mind. What would William Samuel "Blind Willie" McTell, the late blues entertainer think of the lineup of artists performing at the festival named in his honor. Would Willie approve?
Blues music is truly an American creation. The evolution of the genre begins with the music of colonial slaves that would eventually merge with other musical influences and become the "blues". Purists want to believe that it magically crawled up from the Mississippi Delta in the early 1900s, but in fact, its genesis takes place much earlier. Characterized by its repetitive melancholy lyrics and instrumental structure, it evolved from the primitive chants, hollers and work songs of generations of enslaved Africans. The stereotypical "Blues Man" would be a poor, solitary, self taught, guitarist spinning his tales of woe, hard times and love gone bad. Every region of the United States developed its own flavor of blues but its most associated with the Deep South.
Unfortunately, the music of African Americans before the 20th century was largely undocumented and ignored until record companies realized that there was a market for them. By the mid 1920s, sales of blues records were taking off and musicologist were on the hunt for the next legendary blues hero. Such is how Willie was discovered.
From Jazz to Country to even Rap music, the end result owes it's lineage in some fashion to traditional blues sounds and practices. Louis Armstrong took his blues influenced trumpet to Chicago and started the Jazz Revolution. Swing pioneer Cab Calloway used the African lyrical pattern of "call-and-response" for his big brass band. The repetitious beats of hip-hop, the power chord structure of classic rock and the twanging pick of a country guitar all derive from African traditions and traditional blues influence. Without early American blues, we wouldn't have the music of Hank Williams, The Beatles or Elvis.
"...McTell explodes every archetype about blues musicians ", writes Gray. The fact that Willie played a twelve string guitar separated him from most other blues men. He was as fine a guitarist as any that existed. A true musician, he not only recorded solo but played accompaniment on others recordings. Willie was an impeccable piedmont style fingerpicker, but his repertoire was not limited to country type blues. He was as proficient playing bottle neck slide as he was playing ragtime. In one of his recordings, Willie plays and explains several types of guitar style including jazz. To say that he was a bluesman would be correct, but to say the he was ONLY a blues man would not be.
In his 1940 recording session for the Library of Congress, legendary musicologist John Lomax presses Willie to play a traditional "complainin' song ", ...Willlie replys. "...that's not in our time .." McTell like many other blues men of his era was more interested in updating his sound and keeping up with modern musical currents A musician of variety, he was attempting more than "traditional blues".
At his death Willie's inventory of guitars included an electric. There are no known recordings of Willie playing an electric guitar but the fact that he owned one proves his progressive musical nature.
Much like the mixture of musical styles that McTell played, the festival itself has evolved to include the diversity of acts that it has today and they were all influenced by the American blues. I'm positive that ACT will continue to keep the "blues" integrity of the festival alive by hosting great blues icons, but much like Willie's music, the festival is more than blues. It is a celebration of American music!
So back to the question. Would Willie approve?....I think he would want it no other way!