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Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes - In Search of Blind Willie McTell Hardcover – 2 Jul 2007
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"Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes" is a wonderful book about a
spellbinding musician. -- Guardian
Gray has a journalist's eye for detail... he also has a music
lover's poetic appreciation for a great craftsman largely forgotten by
history. A wonderfully tantalising picture emerges of McTell as both a
bluesman and as someone intent on transcending definition, be it by his
blindness or his race.
Gray's wonderful book, part travelogue, part musical journey, part
social history, is painstakingly researched and frequently illuminating. It
brings to light not just an elusive artist but a lost world... Finally, we
have a life to go with the legend.
He inspired one of Bob Dylan's greatest songs and is now the
subject of Michael Gray's fascinating biographical profile Hand Me My
Travelin' Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell : Bloomsbury * * * * *.
Gray, the author of titanic tomes on Dylan, is a fastidious
researcher and here presents not just an authoritative portrait of the
great bluesman, but also a vivid history of the South in general and the
area of rural Georgia that was mostly home to McTell, with an especially
vivid account of the Civil War and the shaping consequences of the
reconstruction of the South that followed. Gray is also a sharply observant
travel writer and some of the book's best writing is devoted to brilliantly
evocative descriptions of the backwaters he visits and the people he
meets. -- Uncut
About the Author
Michael Gray is a writer on music and travel. An expert on rock 'n' roll history, he is author of the critically acclaimed Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan and The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.
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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.
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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