April 30 Charlie Patton and Willie McTell


Charlie Patton can sing the blues better than Blind Willie McTell. I never thought of McTell as much of a blue singer anyway.  He was more of a rag singer.  Sure, there was blues in the rags, but Patton was the true blues singer.  No goofy rag stuff anywhere in his voice. On a good day, Bob Dylan can sing the blues just as well as McTell, sometimes even better. His Delia beats the hell out of McTell’s Little Delia, but it McTell’s version of the song that Dylan sticks closest to. Some of the best singing Dylan has ever done is on that last line of each verse of Delia, a line to which McTell gives neither depth nor variant readings. So why did Dylan choose McTell as the guy who nobody could sing the blues like?  Charlie Patton had a far greater influence on the way Dylan would sing the blues, so one can only guess why Dylan cites McTell as the singer to beat. It could be that he doesn’t think most of his own listeners know one blues singer from the next, so he chose the one whose last name ended in a syllable that was easy to rhyme on.

Blind Willie McTell never wrote a song like Bob Dylan’s song “Blind Willie McTell.” Being all deep and literate just wasn’t his style.  His songs were as light as his fingers and as smooth as his voice.    He was not one to tread the journey from “Love Sick” to “Ain’t Talkin.”  Were he looking for a blues road to travel he would start with “Outlaw Blues” and get off at “Spirit in the Water.” When Dylan takes the bouncy road, he pays his tribute to McTell in songs like “Po Boy,”

Bob is a ballad singer who has always stuck pretty close to the blues. On the current tour, the only songs that show no blues influence  are Soon After Midnight, Visions of Johanna, What Good am I, All Along the Watchtower, and Ballad of a Thin Man; and I’m not so sure about that last one. There may be a faint echo of Saint James Infirmary in there somewhere.  My mama used to warn me about letting the blues go out of my music. She thought all music came from the blues and if you let the blues go, it would all fall apart.  Well, there’s a lot of truth in that.  Dylan has been careful to not let this happen with his own music but sometimes falls into the routine of letting the blues completely take over, but even when the blues is minimized, it is still there.  He was a blues singer from the start and although this tour is one of the least bluesy of recent years, he still uses blues structures to anchor most of the ballads.

One of the central ways in which Dylan’s blues differs from their forerunners is his trading of the literal and commonplace for allusions and metaphors.  “High Water (for Charlie Patton)” is a case in point.  Where Patton’s lyrics tell the story of one man travelling from town to town, trying to find a place where the rising water is not flooding everything, Dylan makes a metaphor of the high water, and in each verse it represents a different kind of evil that is destroying society. His is not the voice of a nomadic everyman, but of an accusing prophet, a Jeremiah on the loose in 21st century America. Dylan is not looking for a place where he can stay dry, but for some wet people to yell at.  It is the same narrative voice we hear in “Blind Willie McTell,” a voice that finds its full range and vocabulary in “Tempest.”