What are the qualities of artistic greatness? What distinguishes a merely entertaining performer from one who is unforgettable?
Complex questions, indeed. Hints to the answers may be found in the life and music of Blind Willie McTell, one of Georgia’s finest and most memorable musicians, and particularly in McTell’s artistic gem, “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of McTell’s last recordings; those recordings, including “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” were made informally in a Peachtree Street record store and released years later on Last Session (Prestige/Bluesville). McTell previously recorded the song at least twice, for folklorist John Lomax in 1940 (available on The Classic Years: 1927-1940, JSP Records, and others) and for Atlantic Records in 1949 (available on Atlanta Twelve String, Atlantic).
Little Jesse was a gambler, night and day,
Well, he used crooked cards and dice…
“Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” tells the tale of one Jesse Williams. As McTell told it, Williams was a cold-hearted gambler who, despondent over a relationship, apparently had an altercation with police, who shot him on Courtland Street in Atlanta in 1929.
What broke Jesse’s heart when he was blue and all alone
Sweet Lorene had packed up and gone…
McTell paid an ambulance service exactly $282.85 to transport the wounded gambler home to New York. McTell recounted the story on Last Session: “He was sick about three weeks after I’d taken him home, sick from the shot, and so he give me this request. He said that he wanted me to play this over his grave. That I did. See I had to steal music from every which way you could to get it to fit.”
I guess I ought to know, exactly how I want 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, buddy,
and eight men coming back…
Although “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” is clearly an original work, music researchers have traced its roots to an 18th century British ballad, “The Unfortunate Rake.” In contemporary white culture, the song form evolved into such standards as “The Streets of Laredo;” in black culture, “St. James Infirmary.”
Send poker players to the graveyard,
Dig my grave with the ace of spades,
I want twelve polices in my funeral march
High sheriff playin’ blackjack, leadin’ the parade
I want the judge and solicitor who jailed me 14 times,
Put a pair of dice in my shoes (and what else?)
Let a deck of cards be my tombstone, buddy
I got the dyin’ crapshooter’s blues…
“Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” shares similarities in musical and lyrical themes with its predecessors. In “St. James Infirmary,” for example, the subject asks to be buried in strait-laced shoes, a box-back coat, a Stetson hat and a twenty dollar gold piece on his watch chain. (For more on the lineage of “St. James Infirmary,” check out Rob Walker’s 2005 book, Letters From New Orleans, Garrett County Press.)
Sixteen real good crapshooters
Sixteen bootleggers to sing a song
Sixteen racket men gamblin’
Couple tend bar (?) while I’m rollin’ along…
One thing that distinguishes McTell’s work from his predecessors is that “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” was “written to order,” so to speak, for his friend who lay dying before him. It’s a tremendous tribute to a man’s life to create a work of art in his memory. Consider this: How else would Jesse Williams be remembered? Atlanta-based novelist and McTell aficionado David Fulmer researched details of the song. Fulmer – whose 1998 film, Blind Willie’s Blues, earned a W.C. Handy Award nomination, and whose next novel is tentatively titled Dyin’ Crapshooters Blues – found no record of the incident in Atlanta Police Department files.
Perhaps a 1929 death certificate lurks in New York state archives, but no one has found it, and who would even care to look, if not for this song?
He wanted twenty-two womens outta the Hamilton Hotel
Twenty-six off of South Bell
Twenty-nine women out of North Atlanta
Know little Jesse didn’t pass out so swell
Now, his head was achin’, heart was thumpin’
Little Jesse went down bouncin’ and jumpin’
Folks, don’t be standin’ around with Jesse cryin’
He wants everybody to do the Charleston whilst he’s dyin’…
In writing “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” McTell confirmed for Jesse that the gambler’s life had value, that it was worth remembering. It’s a concept that goes to the very core of artistic expression, and one that McTell also embraced in his own existence. Born black and blind in rural Thomson, Ga., in 1901, his mother was 14 years old, his father was a gambler and moonshiner. McTell learned guitar while traveling with medicine shows as a teen. He spent his early twenties in schools for the blind before moving to Atlanta in 1926.
As his career flourished, McTell was relentlessly opportunistic. He recorded for several labels under an array of pseudonyms (Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Hot Shot Willie, Pig ‘n’ Whistle Red and Barrelhouse Sammy, to name a few), was well known in the Eastern U.S. and was something of a celebrity at home.
“He knew that he was good,” says folk blues musician Paul Geremia, who is perhaps the premier interpreter of McTell’s work. “He had an aggressive approach to the music business and made sure he got recorded. He may have been a blind man, but he was a go-getter.”
In fact, McTell functioned much as a man who was not blind. He didn’t wear dark glasses, didn’t use a guide dog, dressed sharply and had a memory that enabled him to give directions to anyone who was driving him around town.
Atlanta of the late 1920s was ripe with great musicians, such as Barbecue Bob Hicks, Charlie Lincoln, Buddy Moss and Curley Weaver, but McTell’s legacy is outstanding, thanks to tenacity and distinctive gifts as a songwriter, singer and guitarist. The range of these gifts is evident in “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues.”
The song has a strong narrative and dramatic sense, incorporating humor and local detail as it unfolds in three distinct acts over three minutes, Fulmer explains, and McTell’s delivery is “just masterful.”
Geremia, whose recording career began during the mid-1960s folk blues “revival,” recalls being impressed with McTell from the first time he heard him.
“It got to me in a big way,” Geremia says. “The sound of that 12-string guitar had an indescribable appeal for me. He had a lighter touch than somebody like Leadbelly. He played with bare fingers, and he had a lot of finesse in his picking. I just liked his tone, the way you would notice the tone of a horn player. He had a tone that was his, like Bix Beiderbecke had a tone on the cornet that was his.”
To get that tone, McTell often dropped his guitar tuning to as low as the key of A, performing the song in the key of D minor, Geremia explains.
McTell’s legacy, while exceeding that of his Atlanta or East Coast peers, pales in comparison to the posthumous reputation of such Mississippi Delta artists as Robert Johnson or Son House. Not that he’s forgotten: Thomson, Georgia has hosted the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival for the last 13 years. Blind Willie’s blues club, which opened in 1986, is Atlanta’s longest-running blues venue. It was named for McTell, says owner Eric King, and “all the dear departed blues musicians in the world.”
Conceived as an acoustic listening room, the club has hosted an astounding array of acoustic musicians in twenty years, but almost from the outset has catered more to full bands than to acoustic music.
When McTell died in 1959, his music was largely overlooked, his death not newsworthy. In fact, the 1972 LP liner notes of Atlanta Twelve String state, “Although alive as late as 1966, it seems likely that McTell is dead.” Ironically, had he lived into the ‘60s, the folk blues revival would no doubt have brought McTell commercial success and an audience he could scarcely have imagined.
Despite his lack of mass commercial success, McTell’s work has stood the test of time. “McTell was a transcendent kind of writer and performer,” Fulmer says. “He used whatever was at hand… blues, rags, popular songs, World War I songs, he brought them all together and left all those other guys in the dust. You can’t forget Willie McTell.”
Perhaps, finally, wider recognition awaits. A comprehensive McTell box set is in the works for later this year, produced by Larry Cohn, who won a Grammy for the Robert Johnson box set years ago. Johnson is virtually a household name, in part because of that box set. If McTell were to enjoy similar posthumous success, one can speculate that he would feel worthy of the recognition, and at the same time share the appreciation that Jesse Williams must have felt for being immortalized in song:
One foot up and a toenail dragging
Throw my buddy Jesse in the hoodoo wagon
Come here mama with that can of booze
The dyin crapshooter’s blues, I mean
The dyin’ crapshooter’s blues.
Note: The “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” lyrics excerpted in this text are from the 1949 recording that appears on Atlanta Twelve String, Atlantic Records, 1972, CD reissue 1992. Transcribed by author. Other versions differ slightly.