Whispers on Contraband: The Chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”

BY Nicholas Bornholt


Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff

‒ Bob Dylan


To write of music is to be lost for words. Songcraft can seem more an afflatus for the poetic than a site for critical reflection. To transcribe Mozart or Bach, one could bridge the critical void by turning to the centuries-old system of western musical notation, through which music can literally be ‘written’. An erudite enough eye can somehow hear Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” by reading symbols on a page. It is almost impossible to do this with Blind Willie McTell’s “I Got The [To] Cross The River Jordan.”


In any attempt to write of great blues artists like McTell, it is inevitable that their musical corpora are brought in all their square beauty to the round hole of musical (and/or literary) criticism. The indefinability that one encounters when trying to transcribe certain songs and styles is succinctly defined in Amiri Baraka’s Black Music (2010), when he writes: “A printed musical example of an Armstrong solo, or of a Thelonious Monk solo, tells us almost nothing except the futility of formal musicology when dealing with jazz.”[1] This is something one can attest to when looking at manufactured sheet music, or vocal transcriptions of McTell’s “River Jordan” (there are no original renderings by the artist), or even Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” Such songs are simultaneously simple (technically) and indefinable robust (aesthetically). This disjunction renders something critically beneficial, an ambiguous space within which to shape narrative and manufacture one’s own meaning.


The aptly named Bob Dylan album Infidels (1983) shares its year of release with Blues in the Dark, a fully compiled, posthumous album by the elusive bluesman Blind Willie McTell. Infidels heralds the end of Dylan’s ‘Christian Trilogy,’ a period somehow unfaithful to the status of his wider oeuvre, and isolated in its style of narrative simplicity. Whilst the albums may be highly listenable – they largely lack the sophistication that marks Dylan’s other works as literary ‒ their central tenets largely form around the acceptance of Christ, or God, or both. Conversely the tracks of Infidels begin to rekindle a familiarity, revisiting Dylan the story-teller and literary mind.


On the page, the lyrics of Infidels have a quality and depth of intertextuality absent from Dylan’s writing in the preceding years, but the lyrical invigoration is at times poorly matched by the album’s musical production and inorganic percussion. Dylan has said before that his music should be compared to other contemporary works and not to his own catalog[2] – even so, Infidels is less remarkable than Dylan’s more celebrated albums, except, perhaps, for one song that did not make the final cut.

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, this land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem


“Blind Willie McTell” captures a masque of Bob Dylan largely unworn in the latter part of the 1970s and early 1980s. The song is ethereal and timeless, and yet it is lost in time. It is a folk ballad, a blues cry, it hints at gospel but lacks sermonic divinity. The poetic ambiguity in the lyrics is carried by a vocal authenticity that does not characterize Dylan’s voice on Infidels. There is also a righteousness, absent in the ‘Christian Trilogy’; a clarity and a power not heard for many years. Where the tracks of Infidels can detract and distract from the lyrical nuances, “Blind Willie McTell”’s musical character (Dylan’s piano and Mark Knopfler’s lone guitar) highlight the beauty of the wordplay, and the pain of the implied subject matter.


Through its lyrical and musical ambiguity, “Blind Willie McTell” asks much of the listener. It is a demand made only sporadically in Dylan’s work of the late 70s and early 80s, yet the song languished in silence and obscurity until 1991 – a whisper on contraband cassettes and vinyl. Dylan claims the song was never finished, though we might wonder if he alone can decide that. This paper explores the depth of this exceptional bootleg and links it back to the ‘tripartite’ fusion of his literary works ‒ music, voice, and lyrics ‒ to glimpse the methodical process of historical and literary pastiche Dylan utilizes to construct his most illuminating narrative worlds. It will highlight a conceptual upending of history and time made possible by the song’s portrayals of duality, misrepresentation and misdirection. It will be proposed that this thematic upheaval leads the listener to question assumed absolutes like cultural identity, hierarchy, fiction and fact. Dylan’s protean narration uses intertext and the listener’s perceived historical sense to create a slippage between the reality of a sensual environment and subjectivity, creating a frailty in the ‘inviolable divide’[3] between listener and subject. Consequently, the ambient world of the listener and the literary world of the song become inexorably blurred.


The structure of the song embodies a similar complexity: though loosely based on the traditional score of a blues standard called “St James Infirmary Blues,” it does not adopt with any precision a twelve bar blues structure. The slippage of Mark Knopfler’s Em into a flat fifth seems a beautiful improvisation by a talented guitarist, rather than an intentional blues paean, yet it perfectly matches the lyrics. Similarly, the final narrator “gazing out the window of the St James Hotel” is the unlikely element that weaves together the song’s lyrical polarity, where the seemingly aporetic and absolute elements of the narrative timeline blur together.


Through “Blind Willie McTell”, this article exposes a social historicity that engenders ‘otherness’, as manifested in the racial presuppositions omnipresent in Dylan’s tribute, and in the blues as a musical form. The song’s biographical nature (the white singer exploring the Black subject) signposts how questions of authenticity can be deferred to a body – not just Blind Willie McTell’s work, but McTell himself – allowing Dylan to operate in a fabricated world of evocative subject-matter necessary for a legitimate blues aesthetic. This corporeal borrowing, or ventriloquizing, interrogates how ‘Blackness’ is perpetuated as a myth within the blues that conjures artistic validity, at the cost of further disenfranchising the bodily reality already marginalized outside the artform. Who is more well known: Blind Willie McTell or “Blind Willie McTell?” Here, the fluid narration takes on another critical role, providing a metaphorical personification for shifting perception, and approaching the duality of race in art and life through not just a different persona, but through something that bell hooks deems critical to decolonizing Black images: a different paradigm, an “outlaw rebel vision”[4]


Gotta Serve Somebody

The 1984 bootleg(s) of “Blind Willie McTell” alternate between “body” and “one” in the chorus, “nobody” and “no one” can “sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”. The beauty of this original rendering is the play created between the two terms (alone and in tandem) ‒ the polarity of “one” as a singular anonymous individual, and “body” as a cumulative group of people or work. Alternately, there is “body” as the singular corporeal vessel and “one” as the self-aware, rational and objective mind of the individual ‒ the polarity of identity and anonymity.


The sociologist Erving Goffman asserts that the body is a site of knowing[5], a thing to be observed, and to be utilized as a subjective tool for immersion and ethnographic understanding. But where participation becomes textualized there is a marked shift in the meaning of body – again, from the individual to the whole. For the theme of “Blind Willie McTell” this constitutes a shift from an individual, to an idea of what that individual represents; a collection, or a corpus, an arbiter with fragile individual connotations. As Dylan sings about McTell (and more importantly as he sings about the song’s broader subject matter), he exposes the fragility of textual (musical) homage, the empirical nature of song-as-text, and the difficulty of anthologizing that which cannot be posthumous – whether it be the blues of McTell (the corpus that outlives the body (“hear the undertaker’s bell”)), or the darker concerns in the body of the song itself.


Through the homonymic interplay of body, “Blind Willie McTell”’s lyrics conjure distance and ambiguity, while revealing a deep knowledge of the blues’ history at work in the broader subject(s) that populate its vistas. By incorporating a kind of ‘narrative buffer’, Dylan shows an understanding of the world he is creating while submitting to his own fragility; as a voice echoing from an alien world ‒ “And we all want what’s his”. The certainty of Dylan’s chorus places him among the mythologizers and biographers, separating him from the broader subject (the blues) and his specific subject (Blind Willie McTell). Dylan highlights the undermined nature of his authorial authenticity inside the song by distancing himself from anY message other than the song’s central tenet, allowing the listener to create their own story-world. This decentralizing of the narrator highlights how blues music is foremost a character piece focused on, and authenticated by, the narrator’s physical body, but that body is legitimized by the preconceptions and expectations of the listener. Joel Rudinow’s enquiry in “Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can White People Sing the Blues?” (1994) posits the question that we need: “who can legitimately claim to understand the blues?” Moreover, who can speak authoritatively about their interpretation?[6] In other words: who knows who can sing the blues, and whether they sing them as well as Blind Willie McTell?


The body synonymous with blues mythology is central to this investigation, its incarnation serving as the stabilizing thematic in a musical form otherwise imbued with plasticity. Emerging from the original blues character singing on the corner of W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues”, the body that sings the blues tends not to be autobiographical ‒ the Beale Street blues singer and Handy could not be more disparate. Rather, the ‘bluesman’ tends to be an anonymous figure, a downtrodden savant hollering truth to any who will listen. This bodily myth was popularized by the critical investigations of northern whites with minimal exposure to the blues in utero, forming the basis for Marybeth Hamilton’s exposed myth of “impassioned voices echoing with pain and privation, emanating from a flat, water logged, primitive landscape seemingly untouched by the modern world.”[7] The reality of the blues could not be more contradictory; the successful musician W.C. Handy popularized and monetized the form in the early 20th century. Known as “The Father of the Blues,” he was a formally qualified, well-educated, affluent businessman whose training allowed his compositions to imitate the musical structure he recognized in blues’ styling, his understanding of the blues as a body.


Handy remarks in his autobiography that his blues was based on “primitive” music popular in the work and street songs of southern Blacks; as he puts it, “a distinct departure, but as it turned out, it touched the spot.” He considered his now recognizable musical style as pioneering, transcribing “flat thirds and sevenths (now called blue notes)” into the score where the “prevailing key was major.” (96) His transcription was singular and eccentric, a pastiche of various established and widely performed blues songs. Using “primitive” to describe such a nuanced synthesis of source-material betrays Handy’s institution based musical education. Indeed, it aligns him with the views of Heinrich Schenker, a theorist and musicologist widely popular in Handy’s era. Schenker argued for Western-classical music’s polyphonic crescendo as the pinnacle of musical evolution far beyond the “primeval music of the negroes” [8].


The title attributed to Handy is, then, overstated. He might better be seen as the “collator of the blues,” popularizing the form for a new market and introducing it to a new cultural group. While Handy did not create the form, he did father the body central to its thematic ‒ the critical history of the blues beginning with the appearance of his uncredited muse. A spectral stranger came to him dressed in rags, showing the “sadness of the ages,” in a burlesque dreamscape – a sound rousing Handy from his sleep at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, with a voice from another world making “life suddenly [take him] by the shoulder” and awaken him (74). This is the beginning of the archetypal ‘bluesman’ and the persistent mythos of unlearned anonymity. Moreover, the body attached to Handy’s stranger is unmistakably Black.


At the risk of sounding platitudinous, the link between race and the blues is undeniable – the sense of it being ‘Black music’ is a point with much gravitas, difficult to dispute while simultaneously hard to fully delineate. The borrowing of this ‘Black music’ has meant a polarizing miscegenation of the Black culture attached to its foundational myth, a ‘ventriloquizing’ by others brought on by both longing and disdain (Hamilton 48), and a fraught relationship of give and take – but mostly of take. Eric Lott’s book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1995) shows how the historical appropriation of Black culture is used to applaud and jeer in equal measure. While there is an element of contempt in the heinously racist costumes and makeups of minstrelsy, the performances held an appeal far beyond parody. Shows were lucrative because people wanted to hear the music, but they desired a specific body to perform it.


The burnt-cork makeup of the “charcoal gypsy maidens” was an attempt at authenticity ‒ a misguided attempt ‒ but one deemed necessary by crowd and performer alike. In his exploration of the cultural politics of obligation, academic Nick Heffernan[9] compares two distinct views on this ‘borrowing’ of culture, juxtaposing the brevity of Frederick Douglass’s opinion that performers of blackface were “filthy scum” who robbed Blacks by selling the fruits of their culture to other whites, with W.E.B. Dubois’s view in The Souls of Black Folk that Black music is “the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.” [10] The “gift,” as Dubois explains it, proved irresistible to appropriators, and while the minstrel shows lacked an authenticity of race, Dubois considered a Black body in the performance to be only a secondary concern if broad popularization helped to further equality for that body outside the form.


The reality of the ‘art’ of the minstrel shows is situated somewhere between these two views – the “bootlegged whiskey” where Dylan’s work dwells. It is near impossible to sing the blues, even as brilliantly as Dylan does, without flirting with the appropriation of another cultural marker and another body; it is also hard to sing about that body without profuse abstraction of the simplistic blues myth of primality and anonymity. In the world of artistic borrowing (or appropriation), the zeitgeist may be at ease with Mick Jagger stealing the dance moves of Little Richard – and the lyrical intonations of Muddy Waters – but there is no avoiding an eventual sense of fraudulent taboo in such ‘post-minstrelsy’. It is unlikely that the same breadth of artistic license would be allowed if The Rolling Stones decided to play “Ain’t It Hard to be a Right Black N*****,” a standard that Allan Lomax suggests Willie McTell sing as a “complaining song” in his recordings for the Library of Congress. Mick Jagger does not literally embody the target of that word’s cruel and racist vitriol, so he could not justifiably invoke it to weave a song narrative, regardless of such motivating factors as homage or adoration.


The issue of race is a social and political one, but it is also linguistic: adjectives as predicates ‒ “one place predicate” vs. “two-place relations” as Sagoff[11] puts it (169) ‒ simplify linguistically that which is more complex as a lived experience. To say that white artists sing the blues as powerfully, or feel as Black artists do, is not a justification. The blues acts as an aesthetic predicate, in the form of a broader attributive (Black music). To be blue, to sing of the blues, to use blue chords are all things that can be done outside of the blues, but if the tradition requires an internal and fundamental appreciation of being Black in America to be authentic, then the ability to ‘sing the blues’ authentically is not universal. Andrew McCarron states it succinctly in Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan[12]: “[T]he cultural traditions of African Americans were and are the most influential and consistent sources behind Dylan’s musical creations.” (180) But singing about the blues that influenced you is not necessarily singing the blues as it is ‘authentically’ understood.


Such racial polarity makes the issue an autobiographical one, something fraught in an everyday sense, but heightened in modern academia, even with a largely fictionalized persona like ‘Bob Dylan’ that fits neatly with Barthes’ and continental post-philosophy’s decommissioning of authorial sovereignty. Like the minstrel ‘tent shows’, it is again a specific ‘body’ that critics want in blues mythology, a certain biographical and physical body – not the body that left this song abandoned on the floor of The Power Station recording studio. In “Blind Willie McTell,” Dylan inverts these conceptions: the white body of ‘Bob Dylan’ is absent and mythologized, while the mythological Black body of the blues singer is replaced by the biographical reality of a specific, lower-middle-class, educated and industrious man named McTell. The speaker who speaks, singing the song’s narration, is an anonymous persona, “an American who could speak for everyone; [who] did not belong to any one state, locale or ethnicity; [who] had lived with all manner of Americans and sung with an authentic American voice.” The song is at no point narrated by Robert Zimmerman-cum-Bob Dylan, by white or Black, but by multiple renderings of a democratic-American poet, an ideal “outside of time and space” [13] and outside of embodiment.


This is critical to a truthful homage of both a Black bluesman, and to singing the blues: a non-literate (not to be confused with non-literary) art form. Houston A. Baker[14] posits that expressive artistic genres: “blues, jazz, work songs, and verbal forms such as folk tales” comprise a collective that represents identity. In the case of African Americans, that identity is a ‘sensualization’ of the suffering and societal degradation inherent with Blackness, making embodiment a marker of authenticity. Dylan’s tribute assumes a form that a broader body can empathize with, but ‘no one’ body can fully understand. It is a persona that is necessary until such a time as an “egalitarian ideal has been achieved in American life and art” that will move the blues into the realm of “self-conscious art” (Baker 4), rather than being renowned for otherness. Outside of such egalitarianism, Dylan must leave subjective opinion to a narratorial personification: to an unidentified, bodily other.


The Times They Are a-Changin’

Artistic authenticity is attached to identities that can be malleable (fictive or factual) but are ultimately biographical in nature and centered on an individual or group. Take, for example, a critical investigation into the newly discovered work of a great painter. Comparing the stylings, brush strokes, or themes of the work is not just a matter of aesthetics; it is about authenticity. Unknowingly viewing a good forgery of Nicolas Poussin’s Les Bergers d’Arcadie stirs the same aesthetic reaction as his original ‒ conjuring the inescapability and imminence of death – but that does not make it comparable to the work of Poussin. Rather, the learned depths of an art expert’s examination of style seeks to authenticate that a work is by the artist’s own hand. This perspective on authenticity seems flawed because it conflates legitimacy with propriety, where the ‘who’ of the originator is more important than the ‘what’ of their affect, but it is ultimately underwritten by the invaluable nature of originality.


The ‘brush strokes’ of authenticity in songs are somewhat different. “[T]he literature of musical aesthetics [focuses] largely on the relationship of performances and ‘the work’ – or, because the work is conceived of as a composition, between performances and what the composer intended.” (Rudinow 129) So, the ‘work’ as Rudinow explains it, is an ambition by the artist to transfer their artistic vision from ether to artefact, traditionally via notation and contemporarily as a recording. Theodor W. Adorno ponders such original exemplars in Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction (2006)[15] saying that the “dignity of the musical text lies in its non-intentionality,” something that is highlighted when comparing live performances of “Blind Willie McTell” with the power of the Infidels bootleg. Adorno continues by saying that unlike visual art (that which “is”), or verbal text (that which “signifies”), music is a “third element […] derived as a memorial trace of the ephemeral sound, not as a fixing of its lasting meaning.” (4) The bootleg of BWM is the definition of ephemerality, representative of a lost burst of time motivated and moved by unknown catalysts that lead to authentic originality. But Dylan has spent the better part of the last thirty years reimagining his ‘authentic’ works with often unrecognizable renditions. Live performances of “Blind Willie McTell” are no exception. While others have done their best to recreate the original bootleg, works of a Bob Dylan cover-band (or even The Band) lack the biographical traits needed to be considered authentic. “Nobody can sing…” a version of “Blind Willie McTell” ‒ no matter how well crafted ‒ as authentically as Bob Dylan. But, simultaneously, Bob Dylan might never do another version of “Blind Willie McTell” that is as ephemeral as his original recordings.


The additional layering in this idea of musical authenticity takes on a deeper meaning in a racial sense. Still largely biographical in nature, the consideration of exemplar recordings imbued with elements of Adorno’s “memorial trace” makes the work of deciphering authenticity still more fraught. The idea of the blues as a ‘Black music’ requiring a Black body to perform it meets with some well researched critical resistance: but rarely progresses beyond classifying exclusivity as a form of cultural parsimony, reverse-racism, or “ethnocentrism.”[16] Categorizing the musical reworkings of white performers (based on recordings of Black bluesmen) as biographically inauthentic is not unfair; any suggestion that it is plays more into the denotative definitional reality of idioms like ‘reverse-racism’ than it does critical gusto. A Black man from the Mississippi delta could never contribute to the works of the Dutch Golden Age. No matter how vivid his baroque-styled renderings, he would simply lack the appropriate biographical palmarés to be considered viable in the field. So why is the blues less culturally sacrosanct?


Casting aside the necessity of Blackness in the blues without considering its impact on biographical authenticity is entirely unfair – a creole of convenience for those who may be considered inauthentic. “Blind Willie McTell” is built on the reality that racial categorization is not just based on social preconceptions, but that it has a foundation in government-regulated institutional exploitation, imprisonment, and social disenfranchisement (‘hear the ghosts of slavery ships’). To discard racial propriety stymies the impact of such a history and foregoes the biographical component of authenticity. “Blind Willie McTell” exposes the listener’s own inherent part in a racial hegemony where whites (male) in America have been excluded from nothing politically, socially or economically, whilst Blacks have been excluded from all these spheres. The idea of an ‘exclusive’ Black music is disruptive of such a power structure, hence the oft-unapologetic stylistic appropriation. Unlike Poussin’s painting, where biographical authenticity is a marker of value, the blues has largely done away with the importance of ‘who’ and replaced it with myth. This has meant that the ‘forgeries’ are heralded as legitimate for their aesthetic appeal, while the Black hand of the original artist has been conveniently forgotten.


The narrative confusion and inherent vagueness in “Blind Willie McTell” highlights the historical role of race in the blues. It exposes a biased historical sense in the reader/listener that exemplifies how a biography of Blackness permeates the song’s lyrics and the broader musical form. The narrator’(s) tense(s) mean that the place in time is confused by the very structure of the song; the lack of immediacy means that the ontological conceptions forego any kind of Derridean “empirical absolutism.”[17] The manufactured vistas are traces of what they represent. By moving from memory to immediacy, from “Seen the arrow,” “traveled through,” “heard that hoot owl singing” (past tense); to “See them big plantations burning,” “There’s a chain gang on the highway” and “I’m gazing out the window / Of the St. James Hotel” (present tense) an uncertainty is created. To listen to the song is to be confronted with empirical immediacy that is not reflected in the syntactical reality.


“I” does not experience any of the direct sensual cues in the song, except for hearing the spectral moans of memory represented by the “tribes” ‒ another time-slippage. As such, “I” does not participate in any kind of empirical understanding: “I” gazes from a window and travels through East Texas, but the listener is the only part of the narrative with immediacy at (correspondingly) the most harrowing textual, and the most intense sensual moments:

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell


The listener is unlikely to have first-hand experience of these specific sensory perceptions, but as experiential metaphors they allow the reader to utilize their own embodied experiences to make a confused scene seem cogent and visceral. By seeing, hearing, and smelling three scenes that are highly palpable (the brightness of a flame, the smell of a pungent flower, and the flinch-invoking sound of a whip-crack!) the writing creates a rhythm of neural cognizance, invoking a crescendo of coherent sensory reality in the reader’s mind – a sense of what the scene portrays.


Writing about the neural theory of metaphor, Simon Zagorski Thomas[18] argues that “every act of interpretation of perceptual stimulus involves the creation of relationships between our previous bodily experience and the activity we are witnessing.” (274) Music thus depends on feeling, which is why sense and emotion are the primary linguistic tools for describing it: songs are sad, or blue, they have downbeat or upbeat tempos. Zagorski-Thomas considers this perception via embodied behavior as the cognitive foundation for intertext, for understanding things through association rather than experience. This means that aural emotiveness shifts from the realm of an individual listener’s actual lived experience (the one) to a broader understanding of the human experience; from a solitary gaze to an immersive, shared sensual-understanding (the body).


Post-modern ethnography holds that “understanding” must be achieved through interaction rather than observation: that only through eliminating the “eye” can one eliminate the concept of subject (noun) as subject (verb): the imperial “I.”[19] Dylan does not endorse or denounce a racialized conception of the blues; instead he exposes listeners (through sense) to their own inherent sense of that racial undertone. As they sit among the moaning tribes, it is not the Israelites they picture (even with a Jewish voice singing), it is a certain body of people that can flatten history, bring past to present, move now to then – no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.


Historical and temporal plasticity conjured by Blackness is rightly hard to grasp, let alone philosophize. There is no “aha!” moment in the subtle analepsis of Dylan’s shifting of space-time. Rather it seems like an aural act of what Endel Tulving calls “chronesthesia,”[20] temporal time travel through a subjective mind, a memory trace that invokes the vista created and populated by the narrator and the listener. From an intermedia perspective this falls in line with Gerard Genette and Raphael Baroni’s “undramatized analepsis,” or “fading effects”[21] used in films and graphic novels to destabilize narrative time and create a mimetic shift for the watcher or reader. It connotes “a progressive immersion into the storyworld” where the narrative structure divides between telling and showing, allowing events to narrate their own timeline. (321) This rationalizes the complexity of the time, place and subject of Dylan’s work. It transforms the listener from a passive witness, to a silent observer, a participant in the unfolding horror – something Nietzsche[22] called the reader’s “historical sense.” A knowledge of history inside an individual, the “I remember” that inevitably distracts any subjectivity with the “chains” of the past. (7)


The dialectical and conversational astuteness that Baroni focuses on is the same process that allows a reader to understand what is meant when James Baldwin[23] writes “Dear James: I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times” (13). In “Blind Willie McTell” that recognition deciphers a triangular conversation between narrator (a), narrator (b), and the listener themselves, where the mind-reading required to assume we are not reading a torn-up letter in Baldwin’s work is the same that paints “Blind Willie McTell”’s vista ‒ the mind of the conversation’s silent party. The imagination of the listener/reader that drives such an understanding is shaped by the social construct that surrounds and permeates them ‒ what Aldon Morris[24] refers to as “systems of human domination” are uncovered in this song, where one group controls another group through “ideological hegemonies” enforced by pervasive societal narratives (20). bell hooks’s notion of “decolonization” posits that confronting that social hegemony (“linguistic, discursive, or ideological”) begins with the recognition of its very existence (15): “there [is] a chain gang on the highway’, not ‘there was…”


Language creates the narrative of inferiority, or otherness, shaping perceptions that fortify all forms of mass oppression. By setting a vague scene and allowing the mind of the listener to illustrate the vista, “Blind Willie McTell” exposes the narrative associations that inhere in the song through the listener, populating the “ghosts of slavery ships” and showing how literal emancipation is illusory unless the narrative of Blackness is changed ‒ what might be termed a “literary emancipation.” The song would not be the same if the chorus was “I know no one can sing the blues like Cisco Houston”, “Woody Guthrie,” or “Bob Dylan.” Telling unique and personal stories (singing songs) is the first step to any kind of broader, less sanctimonious freedom. Here, however, that premise is inverted, the song revealing the shackles of a historically distant but temporally near cultural association.


Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again

Inversion has a great deal more exactness to it than misdirection, with the definitional difference being the binary required to ‘invert’ two distinct points, things, or views. The structure and subject matter Dylan invokes in “Blind Willie McTell” can serve as a tool to abstract the fragility of the blues’ racial mythology, and to invert the inherent otherness of that myth’s Black-body. The song’s narrative style brings into question the absoluteness of geographic certainties like direction and location to expose how a readerly subjectivity guides all understanding. East and west become metaphoric literary tools that can deftly narrow the divide between fiction and fact, revealing the adjudicating necessity of the eye (or ear) of the beholder.


This thematic begins immediately with the confusion of the song’s ordering: the narrative’s poetic starting point and syntactical beginning are disparate; the lyrical content and verse structure both misdirect. The song begins (structurally) at an arrow-laden doorpost, a portal into another place marked by a sign that is semiotically non specific (what the arrow points to) and semantically obtuse: “This land is condemned” (what land?) In linear time, this opening tableau has passed; it is too late to stave off the condemnation. “Seen the arrow” subtly indicates analepsis, the immediate inexactness of reminiscence and the historical sense of the wronging. There is a temptation to excuse “seen” as a stylistic attempt at ‘blues authenticity’, but that notion is tempered by the lack of elisions and contractions in “Blind Willie McTell”’s broader grammatic parsing. Moreover, the poetic neatness with which “Seen the arrow on the doorpost” juxtaposes the final verse’s immediacy: “I’m gazing out the window.” These two scenes create narrative space inside a physical space, highlighting two polarities simultaneously: inside/outside and then/now.


The perceived physicality of “Blind Willie McTell” does not hinder or confine the expansive traveling of the narrator(s). They find their way through portals in the physical space via doors and windows. Nor does it confine the listener who traverses these physical gaps as thresholds of “narrative magic” [25] mapping an auditory journey through the space-time of the song’s trochaic footfalls. The story is a recollection of escaping a conception through a portal, where the analepsis of “seen” is a prolepsis in structural-narrative time. Contrarily, if the journey ends at the window (as it does structurally) then approaching from the doorpost means moving through a building or house, a metaphoric home that the story unfolds through. Dylan may be invoking the biblical ideas of freedom and bondage in Lincoln’s ‘house divided’ ‒ the metaphoric, ever-teetering, house of America. The listener finds themselves in limbo in the space of the story, Adorno’s “Randgebaiten,” or Phillip Tagg’s “borderlands,”[26] where absolutes prove hard to neatly categorize (297). Somewhere between New Orleans and Jerusalem, the hoodoo and the holy; somewhere between Black and white, freedom and bondage; an American-grotesque story-world blurring the authentic and the ersatz.


Misdirection and inversion continue in the song’s physical mapping. Traveling from New Orleans to Jerusalem, one does not encounter East Texas without taking a rather long way ‘round, but that is where the listener is guided. Michael Gray[27] links “East Texas” to a cowboy lament in ballad form called “The Streets of Laredo.” The version he cites (requiring a deep knowledge of Allan Lomax’s vast folk catalog) is lyrically unique, because the narrator directly mentions that he is from south-east Texas. (55) A more celebrated version of ‘Laredo,’ on More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1960) by Marty Robbins, is relevant to Gray’s broader theory both for its popularity and its invocation of Robbins’ (earlier and more succinct) album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959), where the story-world of “Laredo” hosts the composition, “El Paso.”


Named for a town to the west of Laredo, “El Paso” is similarly linked to the idea of ‘borderlands’ in American story (and geographical fact). The stylings and sounds of “El Paso” render so completely and succinctly the mythos of the American West that it is almost an auditory mural. This anthemic character is an important parallel to the opening lines: “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso,” and its motivating story of a young cowboy struck down by love, jealousy, and vice; another of the many martyrs in a ballad tradition known as “The Unfortunate Rake.” Because Dylan knows Robbins’ “El Paso” (he performs an instrumental cover of it live at Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1989) and has previously journeyed to the geographic area of El Paso in song: “I’m going down to West Texas/ Behind the Louisiana line,” [28] there is potential for the juxtaposition of direction in “Blind Willie McTell” to be seen as a tribute to the American plurality and polarity of “El Paso” and the cowboy ballads that inspired it (mirroring its multiracial/multicultural heritage). Concurrently “Laredo” invokes “Blind Willie McTell”’s intertextual connection to the “Rake” cycle through the blues standard “St. James Infirmary Blues” which itself alludes to Blind Willie McTell’s own “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues.” This source confusion presents the blues as a form that emerged organically through musical pastiche, one engineered by troubadours exceptionally well-versed in oral tradition and history, rather than a form that materialized spontaneously at a Mississippi train station.


In “Blind Willie McTell,” Dylan overturns conceptions of reality by interrogating (and shattering) polarity, presenting an elegant collision point where myth and fact synthesize – with internal subjectivity separating one from the other ‒ showing us a final ‘borderland’. William James[29] succinctly assessed the necessity of personality in the process of liberating validity and ideas from the “floating” thoughts of story, saying “the only states of consciousness that we naturally deal with are found in personal consciousnesses, minds, selves, concrete particular I’s and you’s.” (226) But between these two things (the east of internalized consciousness and the west of what floats outside) is another ‘borderland’ that changes subjectivity from one group to another, dividing textual ideas of superiority and subjugation where the subjective body meets the outside world. This inside/outside binary is segregated by something that must be overcome by the listener – the border between world and body that shifts internal perspective because of external politics: the skin.


Nicola Diamond[30] summarizes the partitional, frontier quality of skin in her psychoanalytical work, calling it “an exteriorized surface in intimate relation with others (and with the wider social environment) and to the ‘interior’ of the body, which is also profoundly affected by social interaction and environmental relations.” (4) Walter Benjamin[31] theorized the importance of “taking from experience” to give the audience a place to inhabit. What Dylan does in “Blind Willie McTell” is create a space where the raced nature of the song becomes as illusory as the song’s other ‘facts’. In storytelling there are always traces of the real that lead to acceptance of any premise, like the novelist (the focus of Benjamin’s assertion), the poet or musician must thread together their texts from all manner of other sources or experiences (whether stories or real-life) to heighten their ability to show the “profound perplexity of the living.” (87) “Blind Willie McTell” does this by presenting a hollow body whose journey is animated by the historically-shaped, ambient world of the listener.


Go away from my window

The structure and musical styling of “Blind Willie McTell” provides the listener with a space to pour themselves into. The rhetorical circularity and thematic ambiguity align the song’s thematic with the ‘window’ through which the final narrator is gazing. What one really sees through a window is a vista overlaid by the slightest shadow: a reflection of the observer. This optical confusion goes unnoticed unless the eye’s focus is drawn to the immediate rather than the distant. “Blind Willie McTell” flattens history, showing that past and present are concomitant in the window overlaying the song-world.


Dylan’s storytelling can easily be sullied by preoccupations with legitimacy, authenticity, propriety, and ‘truth’. What Dylan is dealing with in “Blind Willie McTell” are traces – not truths. There are no absolutes in the song, only narrative building blocks ready to be made coherent by an audience and a mind. Hard facts like direction, and ingrained mythologies like racial polarity are simultaneously inverted so that in questioning the ‘truths’ populating the song’s narrative, the listener is exposed to the ‘truths’ they bring from their ambient worlds. It is the listener’s interpretation that exposes how real-world assumptions become elements of a wider narrative whole. They guide the interpretation of the spoken-word performance. “Nobody” or “no body” is for the listener to decide. Through the repetitive naming of Blind Willie McTell, the song upends the blues myth of anonymity semantically, while inverting it metaphorically, creating a hollow body for the listener to inhabit: an avatar through which to ventriloquize, feel and authentically understand the complexity of the blues.


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