An event of historical significance took place this past week and very few people seemed to have taken note. The event ranks right up there with the moment Van Gogh put the finishing touches on the Mona Lisa or when Orson Welles decided the editing was complete on Citizen Kane. In Montreal last Tuesday night Bob Dylan performed the first ever live version of the song Blind Willie McTell. This is akin to Beethoven sitting down at a piano and spontaneously banging out a version of Ode to Joy.
From all reports it was a rather ragged version with Dylan forgetting the words to the verse that begins "See that big plantation burning..." but for an artist who is notorious for pulling out just about any song from his vast catalog, it was still a moment that could not have been anticipated and must have been quite special for those lucky enough to be in attendance.
Blind Willie McTell is a song like the best of Dylan's work that is a masterpiece both in content and performance. The song was left off the 1983 album Infidels and its reputation grew from the bootleg versions that circulated among collectors. It was finally released to the general public in 1991 on the Bootleg Series. The version released featured Mark Knopfler on guitar and Dylan on piano and contains a stunning Dylan vocal, the type that proves him to be one of rock and roll's truly great singers.
"The beauty and expressiveness of his voice send shivers through us, immediately and repeatedly, every time we listen; he is so present it scares us, and yet this presence is so sweet we can't pull ourselves away. The piano is guiding him across a vast and mighty landscape, the land of his vision, full of images and sounds and smells, and his voice follows, bringing words and tune and the deep keening of his heart along with it. Every phrase is a voyage, filled with awareness and need and life."
Bob Dylan Performing Artist
There is also an unreleased version featuring Dylan with a full rock band behind him. The difference between a good singer and a great one is the ability to pull elements out of the moment to express what is going on inside the singer as the song is performed. Dylan's versatility as a singer is aptly demonstrated with the comparison between the two versions.
"Not that Dylan exactly throws the acoustic "Blind Willie McTell" away- it's just that the electric take explodes with surprises that in no way diminish the impact of the lyrics. From Dylan's cough on the second line as his voice strains to hit the note to the tap of a shoe counting the band in on the second verse, the way he sings "can strut" like "instruct" the delightful harmonica interludes, that classic way Dylan has of running the words in the first half of a line together just so he has time to bend the remainder of the line to the beat in his head- all work together to provide a breathtaking cut."
The Recording Sessions
So what is Blind Willie McTell about? It's a song where the narrator laments the fact that not only is America a country that has lost its way and lost its connection to its roots, but has also lost the artistic voices, the poets who can chronicle the journey and define meaning for those who will listen. It's a song about the waves of history and how the narrator is sitting looking out his window of the St. James Hotel wondering what is worse- the deadening of spiritual values or that no one is left like that great blues singer Blind Willie McTell to help raise the consciousness of those that are to follow and that without those artists the soul of the country is left to suffer. Of course the great irony of the song is that Dylan delivers a performance of a song that would make Blind Willie proud.
One wonders why Dylan decided to leave the song off his official releases. After years of criticism from critics and fans perhaps he was reluctant to share a song that he knew was so important that it had to be heard, yet couldn't be appreciated by the current marketplace. That he has now made the decision to share the song in performance, in concert is to be appreciated. One only hopes that it wasn't a one off performance and that a St. Paul version is forthcoming.