Arguably one of his best works never to have made it to a studio album, “Blind Willie McTell” is a song many Bob Dylan fans absolutely love. In fact, the song is regarded as a true classic and is considered one of the best the iconic singer-songwriter has ever penned.
Featuring Mark Knopfler on guitar and Dylan on piano, the surviving demo track is an embodiment of lyrical genius and musical mastery. Its message is centered around the life of the late blues legend of the same name, who remained obscure for much of his career, before Bob and others shed some light on his music.
“Blind Willie McTell” opens with the poignant lines: Seen the arrow on the doorpost/ Saying, “This land is condemned/ All the way from New Orleans/ To Jerusalem” and speaks about ‘…big plantations burning,’ ‘ghosts of slavery ships,’ and ‘…power and greed and corruptible seed,’ just a few of the memorable phrases that put images depicting turmoil in the mind of the listener.
All in all, the song is a masterpiece that has remained a favorite for music lovers who have managed to get a hold of it, especially after it was released in 1991 on the Bootleg Series, a three-disc compilation set. The project contained many of Dylan’s best unreleased tracks. Prior to the release of the disc set, it was commonly believed that the musical maestro had a stockpile of songs that had never been aired, but not many were prepared for the high quality of many of the tracks, especially “Blind Willie McTell.”
Before the world got hooked on its well put together lyrics, bootleggers had already feasted their ears on the track, which was written way back in 1983. When it finally came out, the question on the lips of many was why Dylan had left “Blind Willie McTell” off Infidels, which was the album he had been recording at the time of the song’s creation.
Whether it was a missed opportunity or not, Dylan has been quoted as saying that the song was not produced well enough to be included on the album. The available demo version seems to fly in the face of that assertion but then again, we’re talking about Bob Dylan. The singer-songwriter has been a veritable influence on modern pop music for the better part of the last half century, so his ear for good music could be viewed as unquestionable.