A couple of days ago I finally broke down and purchased a subscription to Amazon Music Unlimited. Of course, the first thing I did was search “Bob Dylan”. I noticed a two-song sampler for the soon-to-be-released Springtime in NY Bootleg Series. I haven’t been super-enthusiastic about the last few releases of the Series, so my expectations were low. But I was pleasantly surprised. I love the new version of Blind Willie McTell.
Blind Willie was born in Georgia in 1898 (or thereabouts). He was a traveling blues musician, never commercially successful. He died in 1959. Michael Gray calls him “the last unrecognized superstar of the blues.” His name rose to prominence after many modern musicians covered his songs, most notably the Allman Brothers version of Statesboro Blues. Bob Dylan covered his Broke Down Engine on his World Gone Wrong album. (Dylan also mimics the knuckle-wraps on the guitar from McTell’s version, a nice touch.). See the Blind Willie McTell entry on Wikipedia for more information on the Dylan and McTell connection.
Dylan wrote Blind Willie McTell in 1983, just before the recording sessions for Infidels. He recorded it many times (twenty-one times, according to www.bjorner.com), but Dylan decided not to include it. Maybe he thought Man of Peace was the better song (haha).
Anyway, a version was finally released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, which caused quite the sensation at the time in the Dylan community. That version features Dylan on piano and Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits fame, on guitar.
I think it’s fair to say it was the quality of the song not the quality of the performance that excited most Dylan fans. I mean, the performance is alright I guess, but kind of blah.
Since 1997, Dylan has played Blind Willie 226 times. Rightfully so, it’s a hell of a song. Below are a few standout performances.
And that brings us – to my mind anyway – to the best version yet, the one about to be released on Springtime in New York.
I’m assuming that is Alan Clark from Dire Straits on piano. Dylan adds some nice harmonica, not to mention a great vocal. Dylan said it wasn’t included on Infidels because he “didn’t record it right.” I might have to disagree with him there. Infidels is a good record, but this recording is arguably better than anything on it. And way better than the version on Bootleg Series Volume 1-3.
Anyway. Based on this gem, I’m really looking forward to this release.
Song and Dance Man III, Michael Gray. If you really want to get down in the weeds on the Dylan / McTell connection, this is the book for you.