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Mr. James, do you think I'll ever be able to play the guitar the way you do?' And Skip James turns to him and he says, 'Son, Skip has been and gone from places you will never get to' - Greil Marcus, account of a conversation with a young acolyte in Skip's dressing room

Author Topic: McTell Book  (Read 22862 times)

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Offline LB

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #105 on: February 07, 2011, 04:46:34 PM »
Thanks JM.. I thought I'd seen a thread on it but just couldn't find it with the search tool. Probably fat fingering it.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #106 on: February 07, 2011, 10:04:18 PM »
Thanks JM.. I thought I'd seen a thread on it but just couldn't find it with the search tool. Probably fat fingering it.
This is possibly why the TAGing system was introduced some years ago by the moderators.  :)

Offline jostber

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #107 on: February 12, 2011, 11:56:38 PM »

Offline Rivers

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #108 on: February 20, 2011, 08:08:38 PM »
Still laughing from UB's excellent piece a couple of pages back involving, among other things, the habits of deer, I figured I'd better read it. I ordered the kindle edition. Naturally, I used the amazon link on the left. I'll post a review at some point.

Offline Rivers

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #109 on: March 12, 2011, 09:16:19 PM »
Half way through. While I'm thinking it would benefit from editorial snippage and citations here and there, the general impression is it's probably one of the most three-dimensional historical bios that I've read so far. The author goes out of his way to put you in the context of time and place. UB is right, MG can write.

If that was all there was to it I would agree with the previous posters who were critical of the long lead in, but it's not. I'm finally into the description of Willie's first session with Ralph Peer in Bristol TN. Can't disagree with any of his perceptions about McTell's performances from that one. If you haven't already done so check out Chris Albertson's Jimmy Rodgers bio for more cool details about those sessions.

The other thing that struck me is that McTell, set against the time and place he grew up in, becomes even more outstanding as a musician, lyricist and all-round exceptional human being. Greatly looking forward to the rest of the book.

Offline harry

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #110 on: March 13, 2011, 01:35:32 AM »
Half way through. While I'm thinking it would benefit from editorial snippage and citations here and there, the general impression is it's probably one of the most three-dimensional historical bios that I've read so far. The author goes out of his way to put you in the context of time and place. UB is right, MG can write.

If that was all there was to it I would agree with the previous posters who were critical of the long lead in, but it's not. I'm finally into the description of Willie's first session with Ralph Peer in Bristol TN. Can't disagree with any of his perceptions about McTell's performances from that one. If you haven't already done so check out Chris Albertson's Jimmy Rodgers bio for more cool details about those sessions.

The other thing that struck me is that McTell, set against the time and place he grew up in, becomes even more outstanding as a musician, lyricist and all-round exceptional human being. Greatly looking forward to the rest of the book.

Just wanna say that I'm halfway through too. Not sure if that's a coincidence...

Offline Rivers

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #111 on: April 01, 2011, 07:57:58 PM »
I finished it a couple of weeks ago. The author, at the end of the book, communicates a certain amount of frustration with the task at hand. I can totally see why given the available data and tantalizing leads that unfortunately hit the brick wall of human longevity; most of the witnesses are deceased. You can sense he really wanted to nail something new that would throw BWMcT's life into sharper relief. Actually I think he achieves that anyway but indirectly, by giving us a rich portrait of his life, location and times, and by sketching out Willie's unique personality within that context from first-hand reports. At the same time he does a good job turning up new leads and exploring old ones, and generally giving us all the background.

The research seems to me to be pretty intense bordering on obsessive which is a good thing. There are the usual "blues researcher bashing other blues researchers" aspect though it's pretty gentle compared to other books, you know the ones I'm talking about, comes with the territory. It doesn't detract all that much, and does feed into the final impression of frustration.

As a mere reader I found the book to be very worthwhile and quite unlike anything in the genre I'd read before. I found it to be well worth the read and it did shift my perceptions, in fact I had no idea beforehand what Willie's life must have been like day to day and now I have some clues. And the writing is, as stated in earlier posts, top notch. Very cool book, recommended.

Offline LD50

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #112 on: May 31, 2011, 08:06:41 AM »
I just finished the book. At first I was baffled that the first quarter of the book is devoted to Willie's ancestors (all those chapters set in the Civil War seemed a bit much), but it did pick up when he finally started discussing McTell himself. This has probably been said by someone else here, but to me the main weakness of the book is its discussion of McTell's recordings. He tries to discuss the songs Willie recorded in the earlier chapters, but it seems pretty thin (rather heavy on "this song is great!"). Eventually his discussion of McTell's recordings really starts tapering off: he barely even mentions Willie's 1935 Decca session, even tho it was notable for several reasons: more gospel songs than he'd ever recorded before, great sound quality, Kate's tuneless singing, and McTell's attempt to do a white song, Hillbilly Willie's Blues. He also barely discusses the songs in McTell's 1949 Atlantic session and his 1950 Regal session. This seems like a real shortcoming to me. It's quite a contrast with many other bios of long-dead mysterious musicians, where so little info is available on the artists, that the author is forced to discuss the songs at great length in order to flesh the book out.

Also, I noticed that when he briefly mentioned Blind Blake's influence on WM, he said that he saw no direct influence, even tho McTell's Georgia Rag is a straight cover of Blake's Wabash Rag. Rather a glaring oversight.

I agree, tho, by and large it's a good book, which gives a very good sense of what he went through in researching the book, and what kind of dead ends one hits trying to research the life of someone's who's been dead for 52 years.

Offline TonyGilroy

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #113 on: June 01, 2011, 03:38:04 AM »

I liked the book enormously because Mr Gray gave the reader the sense that he was participating in the search for information about McTell.

A straight fax n info book wouldn't stretch beyond 10 pages and I really didn't need to be given excessive detail on the songs recorded. I've lived with them for 40 years.

I found it a gripping read partly because it was well written and partly because I didn't know what was coming next.

I've just finished the Lightnin Hopkins book which is a thoroughly workmanlike effort. The author's done his best and produced something worthwhile and yet what I wanted was more about Hopkins early life and there was little, I suppose, that the author could find. As it is there's a chronology of 60s concerts and record dates but the author is struggling to find any significance in many of them. Ultimately it becomes tedious.

I read all the biographies of great bluesmen and am usually disappointed whilst recognising that by and large the authors are doing their best with the material available.

I just think Michael Gray took it to a higher level.


Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #114 on: June 01, 2011, 05:13:03 AM »
I've just finished the Lightnin Hopkins book which is a thoroughly workmanlike effort. The author's done his best and produced something worthwhile and yet what I wanted was more about Hopkins early life and there was little,
Just so. Those who over the decades have written at any length about Hopkins will attest to the fact that researching LH's early life is rife with contradiction and little, or no, documentary evidence to support the received wisdom. One's only got to compare the 1959/60 published MacCormick LH interviews with, say, those of Chris Strachwitz a few years later to appreciate that. Perhaps this is why we've had to wait so long for a biography. I seem to have veered off topic.  ;D

Offline LD50

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #115 on: June 01, 2011, 08:35:51 AM »
I don't know anything about this -- how are McCormick's interviews different from Strachwitz's?

Those who over the decades have written at any length about Hopkins will attest to the fact that researching LH's early life is rife with contradiction and little, or no, documentary evidence to support the received wisdom. One's only got to compare the 1959/60 published MacCormick LH interviews with, say, those of Chris Strachwitz a few years later to appreciate that.

Offline LD50

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #116 on: June 02, 2011, 08:26:08 AM »
A straight fax n info book wouldn't stretch beyond 10 pages and I really didn't need to be given excessive detail on the songs recorded.

I wasn't looking for excessive detail. I think adequate detail would have been a big improvement. Especially considering the large amount of filler that is in the book.

If nothing else, it seems to me a better discussion of his songs would have been a higher priority than mapping out every detail of WM's great-grandfather's Civil War experiences.

Offline Rivers

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #117 on: June 06, 2011, 07:01:39 PM »
Here's my take on it. Sketching out the background of the ancestors within the context of the Civil War, and particularly its aftermath in the old south, is to throw light on the social mores that had developed in Georgia by the time Willie came innocently into a complicated world.

We are all at least partially a product of our times and places. So to really get inside a character you have to set their story against that background in order to throw into sharp relief exactly how and why they were different. Willie McTell was an exceptional individual, we have all no doubt always thought so. The book totally confirmed it for me.

I liked it a lot and think everyone should read it. Preferably with McTell's music playing in the background.

I put it right up there with Wardlow/Calt's Patton bio, which is similarly determined to force the reader to imagine themselves back in the time and place.
« Last Edit: June 06, 2011, 07:04:28 PM by Rivers »

Offline misterjones

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #118 on: June 13, 2011, 10:33:12 AM »
Started it and found the first chapter on McTell's last session interesting and a good place to start.  It was downhill from there.  It was too much about the author himself.  Leafing through it, I couldn't locate the part I was looking for - namely, the straightforward chronological account of McTell's life (to the extent it is known or can be deduced).  I'm more of a "just the facts, ma'am" reader when it comes to biographies.  I guess by "Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes" Gray meant his own rather than McTell's.

Offline LB

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Re: McTell Book
« Reply #119 on: June 16, 2011, 06:12:42 AM »
I finally finished the book and it still rings the same for me. Some of my initial disappointment faded but I think the book has some good things that make it worth having yet has no McTell information I didn't already know, read or heard. I did find out a lot about the civil war, difficulty finding salad and coffee in a hick town in the middle of nowhere, and the fact all southern food is evidentally a big red bowls of mush and meat. Okay... I would recommend a much better use of money, that is listening to McTell's library congress early 40s recordings and interviews as well as the 1950s last recordings which both have lots of music and his own voice telling stories. To be sure I've spent decades listening to stories from the few people that knew him. Lots of good stuff and some negative as well. Too bad more of those stories were not recorded but at the same time it's really about the music. Not how some traveling author wanders in a rental car, GPS and a laptop. Amazing how many blues books build excitement then miss the bullseye. Maybe documenting blues in a book is not entirely possible.
« Last Edit: June 16, 2011, 08:46:57 AM by LittleBrother »