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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating account of blues musician & the world where he recorded his music
Michael Gray's astonishingly detailed biography of Blind Willie McTell brings both the man and the world in which he made his music into vivid life. Almost like one of Willie's songs, Grays' book rambles through 150 years of American history - from Willie McTell's white Confederate great-grandfather to today's record companies and his current descendants puzzling over the...
Published on 24 July 2007 by Mick Gold

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars thorough but overlong
Michael Gray's biography of the twelve-string wizard is an extensively researched piece of work, essentially charting the author's journey through record offices, archives, libraries and courthouses. Ultimately, a music biography should concentrate on the artist and his music, but this book seems more concerned with birth certificates and family lineage, rather than the...
Published on 16 Nov 2010 by jbezzo


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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating account of blues musician & the world where he recorded his music, 24 July 2007
By 
Mick Gold (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Hardcover)
Michael Gray's astonishingly detailed biography of Blind Willie McTell brings both the man and the world in which he made his music into vivid life. Almost like one of Willie's songs, Grays' book rambles through 150 years of American history - from Willie McTell's white Confederate great-grandfather to today's record companies and his current descendants puzzling over the royalties of songs that were recorded by Taj Mahal and the Allman Brothers. Willie remains a fascinatingly Protean figure. Always fiercely independent despite his blindness, he carried in his head a vivid mental image of the world as he rambled and recorded from Georgia to Chicago. There is a sense of how each person interviewed met a subtly different McTell. His clear tenor voice and idiosyncratic virtuoso 12 string guitar remain undimmed by the passing of time and inspired one of Bob Dylan's most haunting songs.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars thorough but overlong, 16 Nov 2010
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jbezzo "jbezzo" (Cumbria) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Hardcover)
Michael Gray's biography of the twelve-string wizard is an extensively researched piece of work, essentially charting the author's journey through record offices, archives, libraries and courthouses. Ultimately, a music biography should concentrate on the artist and his music, but this book seems more concerned with birth certificates and family lineage, rather than the spellbinding music McTell produced from his dreadnought twelve string. There are long sections of the book devoted to the civil war, and to the later battle for McTell's musical legacy. Gray has indeed gone to a great deal of effort, but in the search for his subject you have ask whether he really finds him.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read, 8 Jun 2008
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This review is from: Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Hardcover)
I first came across the book when the auther was interviewed by Laurie Taylor on Radio 4's 'Thinking Allowed' - it was the detail that was apparent from the interview that atracted me to the book. So many books covering 'rural blues' simply touch the surface, so that death cirtificate's lack of information, gaps in lives etc., and oft repeated cliches are taken to reflect the vagaries of the musicians rather than the indeference and racial hostility of the society that they lived in. Yes, this is a detailed read, but it's all the better for it, you get a clear understanding of the man, his music and the times that he lived in - an able, intellegent man, much loved by thoses around him and able to deal with great skill with the society in which he lived. I wish that there were more of this kind around - highly recomended!! Now try the box set of his music - great value, a great listen from a great man.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Off the point, 19 Mar 2010
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M. Parr "music fan" (sheffield) - See all my reviews
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As the author says in his introduction, his search forms a part of the book - but acknowledging this does not excuse it.

Additionally, there is far too much low-level detail (relatives of friends of...) and the interesting stuff - about the man and his recordings - kicks in about halfway through. His discussion of the recordings shows that he loves and understands it, but there is a lot of other dull stuff.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well researched but dull in places. Still worth a look though., 28 July 2008
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doublegone (scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Hardcover)
There is a terrific long magazine article about Blind Willie McTell lurking inside this book. The effort it took researching it doubtless made Gray feel he deserved to put his name to the rather grander output of a book. The trouble is that often the little hard-won information there is about the bluesman is sometimes overshadowed by the story about how the author tracked it down. So rather than being the story of Blind Willie McTell, its the story of how Michael Gray researched the story of Blind Willie McTell. At least in titling the book "In search of..." author and pubisher are honest about this. You read at length about trips to libraries, archives, registrars, and county halls in search of documents. A lot of it hinges on birth, death and marriage certificates for McTell and many of his friends, family and acquintances. Its impressive what Gray tracks down but I am left wondering if it is all that interesting. Strangely there seems more detail of the family story in the 19th century than the 20th. The context-setting of the civil war period and its aftermath are quite excellent. Elsewhere though, facts can be scarce, and the travelogue of the contemporary south which Gray falls back on at these points, failed to really engage me. I'd give this book three and a half stars I suppose. For people interested in McTell it is worth reading, make no mistake. I just found some of the writing a little dull, and the book as a whole a little too long. It does contain the most complete discography of McTell in existence, and a lengthy explanation of what he recorded where and in what circumstance - with tantalising mention of tracks that are no longer in existence (as far as we know). For that alone Gray deserves praise, and his book will be of interest to fans of this music.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Dylanologist's View Of Blues History, 26 April 2012
Gray's biography is a remarkable and enormously valuable piece of work, so long as you accept first that - quite the reverse of his work on Bob Dylan - it is an investigation into a man's life, not into that man's art. In fact, you might say that it's only tangentially concerned with the latter. As the former, it is a tour de force, demonstrating extraordinary persistence, insight, and a forensic attention to detail. In that respect, it might even be superior to any other biography of a blues singer ever published. It also functions very successfully as an investigation into the mechanics of biography - the ways in which information about a person's life must be gathered, how those ways are constrained by factors both internal and external to that life. Some of its most effective passages are concerned with those aspects, and Gray can be both witty and challenging in his tales of encounters with both the inevitable bureaucracies and the diverse individuals whose respective filing systems and memories are so vital to his quest.

Given all that, it is perhaps only to the likes of the present reviewer, who has spent 40 years reading blues literature, that something about Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes seems a little odd. For somebody brought up on the kind of blues writing I'm used to, you might even say that Gray's apparent incuriosity about the development of Willie's music soon starts to seem positively weird. At one point, Gray himself quotes the old historians' maxim that "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", but elsewhere in the book, in the absence of much evidence about where McTell's music came from, he seems happy to conclude that McTell just created it for himself. And yet, there is a telling passage where Gray criticises David Evans for the fact that, given the opportunity to ask Kate McTell questions that might have led to information as to whether Willie had fathered any children (and so might have surviving heirs) Evans just asked more questions about guitarists. The difference is between somebody (Evans) whose interest is in the broader picture of the music and another (Gray) whose interest is focused primarily on one man.

Why that one man? It's tempting to suggest that Gray is interested in Blind Willie McTell because Bob Dylan told him to be. Certainly, his interest in the pre-war blues seems mostly to date from when he heard Dylan's wonderful song 'Blind Willie McTell', with its plangent refrain line "Nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell". Prior to that, as is apparent from the early editions of his book on Dylan 'Song and Dance Man', Gray would appear almost to have deliberately resisted any suggestion that an understanding of Dylan's deep roots in American traditions had anything to tell him about that man's art.

Does this matter? Probably not - we all start somewhere and whatever the initial prompt for Gray's interest, it is readily apparent that his love and appreciation of McTell's music is genuine and profound. There is so much information in the book, so much precious biographical and historical data, that it seems almost churlish to complain that you emerge from it no wiser about where McTell's music came from, how it developed, what made it special in his own day, what makes it great now. If Dylan's line is taken at face value (and I know, I know, you should never take anything Dylan says at face value, but for the sake of argument...) and nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell, this is not the book to help you understand how and why. But all the same it is a book that no blues fan can afford to ignore.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great bluesman gets great biography, 11 Aug 2010
By 
James Stagg (oxford uk) - See all my reviews
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There is no doubt that this is a fascinating book about one of the all time great bluesmen. Ok I'm biased...Willie McTell, is for me the greatest bluesman of them all, and if someone wrote a book that listed what he used to have for breakfast every morning, I'd buy it. But this book is much more than just a study of Mctell himself. Mr Gray certainly gives me a real flavour of the Deep South back in McTell's era and puts his work into context, as well as providing a gentle and at times humourous commentary on 21st century USA.
This book will be interesting not just to fans of Willie McTell. It is written in an easily readable style and is well worth buying.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and insightful portrait, 5 Aug 2007
By 
J. H. Bretts "jerard1" - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Hardcover)
This is an eye-opening book, which has enriched my understanding and appreciation of Blind Willie McTell and the blues. Only the absence of maps and a family tree - essential given the welter of place names and people mentioned - prevents it getting five stars.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good read, 12 Dec 2012
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Thoroughly researched and well written. Brings McTell's time and place to life, though would have liked more information on the music proper as well as the man and his family's history.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Badly in need of an editor, 6 Mar 2008
This review is from: Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Hardcover)
While this book certainly gives some sort of a picture of dustbowl America in the pre-war years in particular, it is a tedious read.
If, like me, you are someone who skips over the detailed family trees to get to the real subject in biographies, then this is not the book for you. Only after 170 pages did the story get going, largely because of the author's addiction to detail. The result is that Blind Willie barely emerges as a character in his own book, especially since none of the pictures described in the book are included (not in my edition anyway).
There's a good thin book hiding in here. Maybe before the paperback come out, Michael Gray can have another go at it - and put in a few pictures.
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Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell
Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell by Michael Gray (Hardcover - 2 July 2007)
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