“Blind Willie McTell” by Bob Dylan
(Words/Music: Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991), Columbia 1991)
The 80’s was without a doubt Bob Dylan’s weakest decade and I’ll admit that, in my weeklong celebration of Bob Dylan, it’s a tough place to start. The 60’s saw the rise of Bob Dylan and his expansion from a bluesy folk singer to a rock icon and was Dylan’s richest period musically, spawning song after song and album after album that would become both musical and social landmarks and staples in every music fan’s record collection. In the 70’s Dylan expanded his musical repertoire and experimented with the inclusion of or immersion in various musical styles, most notably gospel and country and, while not always well-received, these forays did produce a number of classic Dylan tunes. The 90’s saw a Dylan revival, partly due to the reverence paid to him by the new “alternative” scene (similar to the treatment Neil Young received), partly because of the popularity of the “unplugged” movement, and partly because of his collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois. And while the 21st Century has seen only four studio releases from Dylan (one of them an album of Christmas songs), the albums are solid offerings in the vein of Time Out of Mind and Dylan has continued his Never Ending Tour, albeit at an understandably slower pace.
But the 80’s were a decade that saw Dylan wandering almost aimlessly and embarrassingly trying to remain fresh and relevant. Out of those albums, 1983’s Infidels saw him team up with Mark Knopfler as a producer in order to put out a more modern sounding album. The result was a fairly sterile offering with highlights being “Jokerman” and “I and I,” but overall was forgettable. The real story isn’t what was on the album, but what was recorded and left off. “Blind Willie McTell,” an homage to the blues singer responsible for such hits as “Statesboro Blues,” was an emotionally charged song with simple production and arrangement, relying primarily on a acoustic piano and guitar and Dylan’s voice. In true Dylan spirit, the song is about more than one bluesman the same way that “Hurricane” was about more than boxer Ruben Carter and “John Brown” was more than the story of a soldier. Dylan tells about the history of the blues and the power of human endurance in an entire culture’s ability to overcome the most despicable events in American history: slavery and the subsequent decades of systematic racism which followed until the battle for civil rights in the 60’s. This spirit and message are exactly what was missing in the music of Dylan in the 80’s so it baffles most musical experts as to why Dylan would leave this song off of Infidels. Perhaps it didn’t’ fit in thematically or musically with the rest of the album (and that’s probably a good thing) or perhaps he just didn’t like it at the time. But whatever reason, it was recorded in full for the sessions but did not appear on an album until the Bootleg series in the early 90’s and almost announces a change in style that would be fully recognized on his Grammy-Winning album Time Out of Mind in the late 90’s. Thankfully, someone had the ability to see the bigger picture and save the recordings so we could enjoy this musical beacon in an otherwise chaotic decade for Dylan.