For several months now I've been enthralled by the Blind Willie McTell song "You Got to Die" from the Atlanta Twelve String album. It's difficult for me to write much about it without succumbing to breathless praise. That being said, I'm pretty sure it's perfect.

Among the song's many charms is a great example of the 'talking guitar' blues convention in which the instrument finishes the singer's phrase. Take for instance the last chorus -- "You got to die/ You got to..." the final chord rings out, followed by the sound of knocking wood (fingers tapping on the body?) The twelve string guitar has an unnatural beauty even in the most prosaic player's hands, but this here is some next level business. The irregular rhythm-- leaning heavily on the chorus before speeding up on the verses-- and a vocal performance that goes from whisper to preacher's trill, give an idea of McTell's singularities and general greatness.

The song is related, thematically and structurally, to "You're Gonna Need Somebody When You Die" by Charley Patton

and more explicitly to "You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond" by McTell's friend Blind Willie Johnson.

(**the divshare flash player has been acting up. if the embedded player isn't showing up, you can scroll down to the mp3 links at the end of the post**)

On Blind Willie McTell's 1940 session with John Lomax, nine years prior to the Atlanta Twelve String recording, Mctell briefly talks about Johnson.

Lomax: "what do you consider his best music?"
Mctell: "Well, sacred music. He have a heavy voice. Most sound like a preacher."

While Johnson & Mctell's recordings share the irrepressible prettiness of the melody (supported by Johnson's female accompaniment), Johnson's crazy false-bass growl makes for a very different impression. Initially Johnson seems to have replaced Mctell's lyricism for a fire and brimstone warning of damnation. But a minute in, Johnson begins singing in the first person.

I heard the voice of Jesus saying
He told me he had risen
Now in the waning midnight hour
I don't hold my breath

Johnson addresses the basic fear of dying alone while McTell sings of the imminence of death. And of course, that Christ provides an out --

"Death is not extinguishing the light from the Christian; it is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come."

Blind Willie Johnson's song "John the Revelator" was included on Harry Smith's seminal American Folk Music and "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond" on Sam Charters' The Country Blues, giving Johnson a continued visibility and influence. The song was heavily covered and adapted in the sixties by Donovan, Taj Mahal, Buffy Sainte Marie and Captain Beefheart, among others. There's a very unfortunate youtube clip of Donovan performing the song. I considered including it, but thought wiser. It's out there if you're curious.

Captain Beefheart - You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond

Blind Willie McTell - You Got to Die
Blind Willie McTell - Just As Well Get Ready, You Got to Die an earlier version from the aforementioned 1940 session with Lomax.
Charley Patton - You're Gonna Need Somebody When You Die
Blind Willie Johnson - You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond
Captain Beefheart - You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond
Mississippi John Hurt - You Got to Die
Elder Roma Wilson - Better Get Ready A version turning up the celebratory attitude. "Ain't it grand to be a Christian!"

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