"Blind Willie McTell" as written by and Bob Dylan....
Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, "This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem."
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
(I can) hear the undertaker's bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There's a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He's dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There's a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what's his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I'm gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell


Lyrics submitted by twitty, edited by benqish

"Blind Willie McTell" as written by Mikael Wiehe Bob Dylan

Lyrics © BOB DYLAN MUSIC CO

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Blind Willie McTell song meanings
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19 Comments

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  • +2
    General CommentWell, God is in heaven
    And we all want what's his
    But power and greed and corruptible seed
    Seem to be all that there is
    I'm gazing out the window
    Of the St. James Hotel
    And I know no one can sing the blues
    Like Blind Willie McTell

    I'd comment, but there's nothing I can say that would add anything to this. In fact whatever I'd say would only take away from it, even this.
    FootOfPrideon September 24, 2011   Link
  • +1
    General Commentthe last stanza is probably the best thing ive ever read
    bobdylaniscoolon January 28, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThe song tells the story of the life of Blind Willie McTell. His struggles and the world he was born in. It also clearly speculates on the fact that Blind Willie McTell never again sung the blues after his convertion. He became a Baptist preacher and started singing gospel music (never recorded)

    Mind the fact that Dylan has changed the lyrics of the first stanza at live concerts into: `All the way from New Orleans to New Jerusalem` This part seams to deal with the hard times of a black blues singer who`s struggles will go on till`kingdom come. In the same verse he tells the story of many slaves who died by the hand of the KKK for their believes in Eastern Texas.

    The second verse probably is somewhat more autobiographical since its telling the story of people who work at a carnival. Dylan used to work at a gypsy circus in his younger years (listen to the gaslight tapes)

    The third verse then again tells the story of the slaves who came in oproar against their opressors. This part is written in beautifull imagery. For example: The magnolia starts to bloom as soon as it gets the possibility to do so. Many magnolias die because they bloom to soon.

    I Truly don`t know what the fourth verse means. It might be the immage of love for woman and booze in Blind Willie`s early career.

    The last verse is pretty clear as it deals with the preaching of blind willi mctell. He told people that no matter how hard live is only God will care for you. We should never give up the struggle even though there is so much pain in this world. the second part of this verse seams pretty clear to me now thanks to this qoute of geranium kisses:

    the St james was a real place that opened as a hotel in New Orleans in 1859 but during the civil War was converted by occupying Union troops into a military hospital.

    well that about wraps it up for today.
    The_Baronon January 29, 2008   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationI created a profile just so I could comment about this song, one of my favourites. I see Bob Dylan writing this almost as an antithesis to the American Dream, taking quick snippets of the nation's less than glorious moments in history and presenting them in a lament, or perhaps even an elegy, for a land that "is condemned".

    After the first verse sets the tone, the second paints a tableau of charcoal gypsy maidens (or is that "chaco"? I love Dylan's use of descriptive words!) below a hoot owl in barren trees. I see the moment depicted as one before the discovery of the New World, a time when the Americas where sparsely populated, "barren". Trees are barren of course in winter, at the start of the the year, so it also refers to the start of America's story.

    Then the white men arrive in the next verse with slaves in tow. It's powerful and mostly self-explanatory, but when Dylan sings of "tribes moaning" - is it the tribes of Africa torn apart by slave traders, or the tribes of Native Americans overran by Manifest Destiny, or both? The tolling of the undertaker's bell signifies the end of the old way of life.

    The next scene could at first be a moment from anywhere and anytime, but a young man "dressed up like a squire / Bootlegged whisky in his hand" can only be found in the 1920s and 30s, a point backed up with the chain gang on the highway image that immediately follows. By the way, when he hears "them rebels yell" are we still in the 1930s or have we jumped forward to the 1940s and the greatest generation fighting in WWII, rebelling against the evil Nazis? Of course, a lot of the chain gangs of the 1930s would have been conscripted into the armies of the following decade!

    The last verse I see as Dylan's condemnation of modern America, greedy and grasping and so busy trying to be the greatest without stopping to think that maybe it's the little moments that count, that make life worth living in the first place. As other posters have commented, the St James Hotel was a real hotel in New Orleans, tying the story back to the opening verse, but for St James Hotel, even though I'm not religious I read also St James Bible. Is Dylan saying that we've lost our way and should look to the Bible to find ourselves again?

    That's my interpretation anyway and I'm sure everyone has their own. As far as I'm concerned, this just beats Mr Tambourine Man as my favourite Dylan song.
    mgoulden84on September 25, 2011   Link
  • +1
    General CommentSt James is a hotel in London that Bob Dylan was staying in. It's on the site of an old hospital. There was a song first collected in the 18th century about a man dying of syphillus there, That song travelled around England and became a song about a dying sailor and a soldier. It travelled across to the USA and became a song about a destitute woman - Lament of a Bad Girl. It went westwards and became a song about cowboys. It went to the southeast and was taken up by Blind Willie McTell who made intot the Dying Crapshooter's Blues. Dylan knew the history of this song and it was this that he was capturing in the lyrics while he stayed on the site where the song first started
    blackadderson September 17, 2013   Link
  • 0
    General Commentim just posting for the sake of it--Due to the fact this being possiably my favourite Dylan song-and what a cracker it is- I think hes basically saying ppl are never happy with what they got"Well, God is in heaven And we all want what's his" and the fact that we should all think about the thing s we take for granted such as the amazing gift of sight
    "I'm gazing out the window
    Of the St. James Hotel
    And I know no one can sing the blues
    Like Blind Willie McTell"
    Regardless of which this is an amazing song
    Nogtopooon May 18, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentWhat a spectacular song. Probably my favourite Dylan track.
    I think it's about suffering in the world, and how we should try to move on from our past ["ghosts of slavery ships", "where martyrs fell"] bringing it all back to this character Willie McTell, who despite being blind, manages to get on with his life and be the best blues singer (Bob Dylan) knows, a trait he obviously admires. Beautiful, beautiful song.
    fearon July 30, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General Commentso i just heard this song for the first time and im addicted to it. its amazing. im thinking that blind willie mctell is more of a metophor than a person. he's the representation of how someone always has it worse off than you, and therefore your blues are no where near what someone else's may be. i agree w/ the idea that we take things for granted, frankly b/c we do.
    greypsychon August 10, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentBlind Willie Mctell is my favorate of the Delta Blues singers, Please post some lyrics or comment in his section on this site
    FackingHellon August 30, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentBlind Willie McTell is a real person and he is one of the best delta blues singers ever. It's a song about the troubles and wrongdoings in the world but incorporated with a famous blues singer who could have witnessed all the things Dylan writes about here.
    jhendrix516on October 04, 2006   Link

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