Evoking the turbulent past of the subject’s time and place, this odyssey to rural Georgia peels back the many layers of Blind Willie McTell’s compelling, occasionally shocking, but ultimately uplifting story. Portraying him as one of the most gifted artists of his generation, this account uncovers the secrets of McTell’s ancestry, the hardships he sufferedincluding being blind from birthand the successes he enjoyed. Traveling throughout the South and beyond, this personal and moving journey unearths a lost world of black music, exploring why he drifted in and out of the public eye, how he was “rediscovered” time and again through chance meetings, and why, until now, so little has been written about the life of this extraordinary man. Part biography, part travelogue, part social history, this atmospheric, unforgettable tale connects the subject’s life to the tumultuous sweep of history, exploding every stereotype about blues musicians and revealing a vulnerable milieu of poverty and discrimination, demonstrating that little may have changed in the Deep South, even today.
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Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes
In Search of Blind Willie McTell
By Michael Gray
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2009 Michael Gray
All rights reserved.
The American State of Georgia divides itself into a huge number of counties, more than any state but Texas. They've been splitting off from each other like amoebas for two hundred years, and now there are 159 of them. (Florida has sixty-seven, Arizona fifteen.)
One of Georgia's smallest and poorest is Warren County, two-thirds of the way east on the 141-mile trip from Atlanta to Augusta. It's a rural county, and very pretty. Driving within the speed limit on Interstate 20, you'll pass through it in under thirteen minutes.
I didn't, though. The best way to slip back in time, back into the Georgia that Blind Willie McTell knew, is to take the old roads through farmland of rolling brown hills and small, sad towns.
You more or less have to leave Atlanta on the interstate, but twenty-nine miles out you can escape at Covington, the main town in Newton County, and move onto Highway 278. Under its old name, Highway 12, this was the main road before the interstate was built, and it runs all the way east to Augusta, where the Savannah River divides Georgia from South Carolina. Highway 12 follows the route made by all the little roads that linked up the towns between the two cities before the highway was built in the 1920s. A line the same shape runs across the state map for 1895, marking out the route of the Georgia Railroad Company before the roads were there.
Leaving Covington, the old highway runs east through miniscule Brick Store, where Willie's second wife, Helen, grew up, and on towards the grand old town of Madison. Somewhere along the road a white plastic church sign, lit from inside and topped by colored lightbulbs flashing on and off, urges DON'T WAIT FOR SIX STRONG MEN TO CARRY YOU INTO CHURCH!
Madison was voted nicest small town in America in 2000. It doesn't say by whom. Naturally it is all antique shops and Ye Old Colonial Restaurant, a doll shop and Ruffled Rooster knick-knacks. You can't move for Heritage plaques, yet half the sumptuous, exhausted-looking "historic homes" are up for sale. Baptist and Methodist churches compete for pomposity and size.
There's no alcohol on Sundays in this part of the country, though in some towns they relent if you're eating a restaurant meal — and Madison is unique for many miles around in having a proper restaurant. The Amici Italian Café serves real food and wine and, after a week or two in the gastronomic desert of rural Georgia, it begins to seem reasonable to drive back there from fifty miles away for something decent to eat.
After Madison, the road takes you over the hushed expanse of Lake Oconee and through the middle of the Oconee National Forest. This is rich farmland — it could almost be Gloucestershire. Out the other side comes Greensboro, Union Point, and then Crawfordville, one of those towns that's waiting to die.
Built in 1910, with a huge redbrick courthouse as florid and forbidding as a Dickens orphanage, old Crawfordville is tiny — one short street flanked with shops, like a town in a cowboy film. Bill's Grocery: building for sale. Candy Store: empty. Milliner's: empty. Café: closed. The Crawfordville Supperette: closed. Part of the grocery store is open, and so is an extraordinary machine-crammed place where fifty people ought to be making overhauls and nurses' uniforms but where just one woman is walking around. And then there's the Southern Magnolia Restaurant, Home of the Magnolia Onion (a big onion opened up like a flower and deep fried).
Back on the road, the railroad line runs alongside for many, many miles. There are only freight trains now, and these are rare and sometimes a mere three trucks long. You cross from Taliaferro County into Warren County just north of a speck on the map called Barnett. Two miles later you pass underneath the interstate and, after eleven more miles southwest, you reach the small county seat of Warrenton.
This is no distance at all from Happy Valley, the sprawl of land in adjacent McDuffie County where Willie McTell was born and is buried, in pineywoods country south of the small town of Thomson. His body was brought to Warrenton by train the day after he died down in Milledgeville, and he was embalmed here on a late August day in 1959.
In August heat, little downtown Warrenton is an oblong of dazzling white emptiness centered on the county courthouse — full afternoon sun bouncing off white buildings and near-white concrete sidewalks, off shiny cars and pick-up trucks, off the white columns and plinths on brick buildings, off the white and green frontage of Miss Jane's Restaurant, off plate-glass shopfront windows with battered aluminum frames, off the white water-tower high up on white metal stalks, and off the white soldier on top of the white Confederate monument.
The old brown Knox Theater squats dying across the way, its dirty brick façade fading to dusty invisibility. On the corner of Main and Norwood is the Petro Gas Station and Store (No Restrooms), the one place downtown where black guys hang out. Down Norwood you cross the railroad tracks to reach the black part of town. It's literally the other side of the tracks.
The Chamber of Commerce, trying to promote tourism, says that Warrenton has "that down-home feeling, that everybody-knows-every-body feeling when you're walking through town. Coming here, it's like stepping back in time."
So is eating here. Avoid the fast food of mall and strip, eat instead in any small town in this part of Georgia and you get, cumulatively, a sense of how unchanged the diet is since McTell's day. To follow in his footsteps is to eat his food: food that is lumbering and uninspired. Meatloaf, spaghetti, breaded chicken, grits, rice, meat sauce, tomato sauce, liver, gravy, corn dogs, bread, and biscuits. Everything's big and brown and heavy, except when it's big and lurid red and heavy. Willie was eating barbecue under a tree when he had his second and lethal stroke.
You can help yourself to all of this for lunch at Miss Jane's — you'll find it laid out in its open, stainless-steel coffinettes — but you can't have a salad, not even at the height of summer. They're kindly and sorry about it, though they're not so polite in the Gents, in which a lavatory-seat-shaped sign above the bowl reads "Stand Closer, It's Shorter Than You Think."
Just 6,336 people live in this county now, a quarter of them below the poverty line. The racial mix is 60/40 black to white.
This was one of Willie McTell's stomping grounds. He knew Warrenton like the back of his guitar and he spent plenty of time in Warren County. He had friends and relatives here. His cousin, Gold Harris, lived here, on County Line Road, where one side of the road is in Warren and one isn't. Other relatives attended Mount Aldred Church, and lie buried there now. His singer-guitarist friend Buddy Moss spent part of the late 1930s locked in Warrenton's brand-new jail.
But Willie's story holds a much older Warren County connection, reaching all the way down from the late eighteenth century.
At American Independence in 1776, the new nation had appropriated little more than the east coast of the continent, and was only just groping west. Georgia ran all the way over to the Mississippi River, but west of Georgia were the vast French, then Spanish, territories of Louisiana (soon to be French again), which stretched from the Mississippi all the way to the Rockies and north-south from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
On Georgia's southern border was Florida, so you had to watch your back, too. "Georgia," as Tom Henderson Wells wrote, "was a frontier area, subject to depredations from Florida" (whose ownership was fought over by native Americans, the French, the Spanish, the British, and the States — this last a body that Florida wouldn't join till the third decade of the nineteenth century). Even Savannah, then Georgia's biggest city, was re-taken by the British two years after Independence — as if to emphasise that 1776 was the middle of the American Revolution and not the end of it.
So Georgia was a frontier state when Warren County came into existence, which was on a Thursday, six days before Christmas in 1793. It made itself from modest bits of Burke, Columbia, Richmond, and Wilkes Counties, and named itself after a Harvard graduate, political agitator, doctor, and freemason from the Royal Province of Massachusetts, one Joseph Warren, who had volunteered to fight the king's men and got himself killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, six days after turning thirty-four.
Warren County was far more populous when it was new than it is now, and its boundaries bigger. (Several parcels of land split off in turn to make more new counties over the decades that followed.) This had been the land of the Lower Creeks and Chickasaws, who had combined farming and fishing. In the spring they'd planted maize, hunted animals and fished in fresh water. In the winter months they'd migrated south to the warmer coast and caught clams, oysters and crabs.
In the Warren County of 1800, the Native Americans were long gone. Now there were 8,300-odd people, and a quarter of them were slaves owned by the others. The total number of "free persons of color" was just nineteen, and they were a great deal less free than white people. In 1815 the state decreed that they could be tried for crimes under the same laws as slaves; in 1819 it decreed that once a year they must register with the clerk of their county's inferior court, on penalty of being sold back into slavery; and in 1833 it became just as illegal to teach a "free person of color" to read or write in Georgia as to teach a slave these skills.
A few rich whites owned a lot of slaves, but most white people were not rich and therefore owned just a few slaves — commonly two or three. You could be a poor white tenant farmer — a cracker — and still have a couple of slaves, just as, in the early twentieth century, you could be an underpaid middle-class clerk and still have a domestic servant, and just as you can be a working-class man of any color and still have a working-class woman to fetch and carry for you.
On the other hand, here in the nineteenth-century South, the fetchers and carriers really were slaves: they were your personal property, they had no rights as people and were counted alongside your cattle, farm machinery and tools as items to be taxed, bought, sold and bequeathed in your will. If you wanted to, you could separate slave children from their parents, or from their brothers or sisters, and send them off elsewhere.
As slave states went, Georgia's totals were never huge, but in the ten years after 1790 the number doubled to almost 60,000. The greatest concentrations were in the counties that included Augusta and Savannah. They came through Augusta from South Carolina and into the port of Savannah by ship. The Savannah River was a crucial link between the two. Slaves were literally sold down the river. And up it.
White people were also flowing through Augusta, albeit willingly, on their way from the Carolinas into Georgia.
One of these migrants was a man named Kendall McTyeire. Or Kendal or Kindal McTyare or McTier. Or McTyrie, McTyire, McTyre, McTear, McTyere, or any number of further enterprising variants. People just didn't care, in those days any more than in Shakespeare's, how they spelled their own names, let alone other people's.
We'll call him Kendall McTyeire, and note in passing that his middle name was Lee. Everyone seems agreed on the spelling of that one.
He was born in South Carolina but, by early 1819, a young man in his twenties, he'd moved into Georgia, settled in Warren County, and married above himself. Elizabeth Bass was the daughter of a landowner and slaveholder, Reddick Bass, and his wife Obedience, whose maiden name was Persons and whose family lived nearby. We don't know how many slaves Mr Bass held, but we know that he paid taxes on just one adult slave in 1791, two the next year, and thirteen by 1805. Kendall's own father, John McTyeire, held none.
Kendall and Elizabeth's first child was a girl, Narcissa, born in 1825. Next came a son, born on a Sunday, 16 April 1826. When he was born, John Quincy Adams was President of the United States — the sixth president, and the last to represent the Democratic-Republican Party. In Georgia, the state capital was no longer Savannah but the town of Milledgeville, just forty miles south-west of Warrenton. Milledgeville had been built to be state capital, with streets one hundred feet wide, to accommodate horses, buggies, and ox carts. They've never had to widen the streets since.
Kendall and Elizabeth named their son Reddick, after his grandfather. He is a main character in our story.
His names, too, would come to be spelled in many different ways. His first name comes up as Rederick, Riddick, Redrick, and more. When he puts his signature on a document in later life he writes it Reddick McTyeir, so that's what we'll use here — though he might have spelled both names differently if he'd signed that same piece of paper another day.
In the farming community he's born into, his father is a solid citizen — he sits on juries, he's appointed one of five commissioners who "divide the negroes belonging to the estate of McCoy, David, deceased," and, when Reddick is three years old, his daddy is on the jury in the murder trial of a black man named Cato.
Despite these civic duties, the family is not well off. The farm seems to have struggled from the start, and to have kept going with difficulty through the years of Reddick's childhood, with Kendall selling off slaves in ones or twos to keep things going. In the 1820 census, "Kindall McTear" has three male slaves aged between fourteen and twenty-six, and one female aged under fourteen. He sells one of these the following year at a sheriff's sale on the courthouse steps in Warrenton.
By this time there are just over 4,000 slaves altogether in Warren County and nearly 150,000 in Georgia. (In 1820 also, King George III dies in England and, in theory, the slave trade is abolished in Spain and Portugal. The year after, Spain loses Mexico, which now becomes an independent nation.)
Early in 1829, grandfather Reddick Bass dies, leaving his wife Obedience nearly three hundred acres of land and four slaves for her lifetime. Kendall is a co-executor of his father-in-law's will, and has to fight off various claims against the estate.
At some point in his adolescence, Reddick's mother Elizabeth dies too. We don't know when or why, but we know it must be after 1836, because that year she gives birth to Reddick's fourth and final sibling, brother Solomon. Reddick is ten then, and already has two younger sisters, Teresa (born 21 April 1830) and Synthian (13 August 1833), as well as his older sister Narcissa. When their mother dies, Narcissa looks after the younger children.
(Actually, it just might be that, before any of these children, Kendall and Elizabeth have a child named Larkin. Certainly there is a Larkin, born around 1823; the doubt is whether he is really their child. If he is, why doesn't he feature in his father's will? Why doesn't he inherit anything, as the oldest son? There is still a dispute about Larkin's status among the family's amateur genealogists.)
Either way, in the early summer of 1844, when Reddick is eighteen, his father remarries. This second wife is a widow, a Mrs Rebecca Culpepper, née Duckworth. Perhaps the marriage of these two middle-aged people improves the McTyeire family finances. Three years later they buy some land previously owned by Rebecca's first husband (why it didn't belong to her already we don't know) and, by 1850, Kendall has built up his tally of slaves to ten. Meanwhile all his daughters have married.
Out in the wider world, these are times of exceptional foment, even by the rambunctious standards of the nineteenth century. In 1845 the first iron ship crosses the Atlantic, and Texas becomes a state. In 1847 thousands of small investors are ruined when the first Railway Boom collapses. In 1848 the Republic of Venice is proclaimed in St Mark's Square, John Stuart Mill publishes On Liberty and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels publish The Communist Manifesto. Revolutions erupt in France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Germany. In 1851 Herman Melville publishes Moby-Dick and Harriet Beecher Stowe starts to publish Uncle Tom's Cabin as a magazine serial. In book form, it becomes the best-selling novel of the century and helps turn public opinion against slavery. Today its hero's name has become a byphrase for contemptible kowtowing to a racial oppressor, but back then it was intended, and received, as an incendiary anti-slavery work. It is particularly strong on the suffering caused by the callous splitting up and dispersal of black families by their white owners.
Excerpted from Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes by Michael Gray. Copyright © 2009 Michael Gray. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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