Bob Dylan, 1983 (age 42)   Photo (c) Lynn Goldsmith

“Blind Willie McTell” (Bob Dylan)
Guitar tab - in an alternate key/tuning

by Tim Darling (email) - February, 2015

Music articles

Overview / Summary

Dylan’s albums from 1963 (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) to 1969 (Nashville Skyline) need no introduction here. In the 1970s, he had an occassional great album or song (mostly in 1975’s Blood on the Tracks). By the 1980s and later, many overly optimistic critics claimed to spot a comeback, but there was little if anything that came close to the inspired work earlier in his career.

In a 2004 60 Minutes interview, he admitted as much, after reading lyrics from 1965’s It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding): “I used to. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written. Try to sit down and write something like that... You can’t do something forever. I did it once, and I can do other things now. But, I can’t do that.”

But in a twist on this neat chronology, well-known to Dylan fans, but little-known to the general public, was his 1983 masterpiece, “Blind Willie McTell”. An unreleased song by the 42 year old songwriter, it moves through time and space with a depth that few of his songs have ever reached.
Download the full mp3 on iTunes or Amazon. (I’d be happy to post it for free, but I have to cover the royalties.)

Guitars, bass guitar, tabs/arrangement: Tim
Vocals: Shelby Lindley, Audrey Callahan
Violins: Maria Grig
Backing vocals: Scott P Warren
Mixed and mastered: Ziv Music

It moves through references to Jerusalem (implying Bibilical times), “East Texas” (the Alamo, 1836), “plantations burning... slavery ships” (such as Columbia, SC fire, 1865, at the end of the American Civil War) with images that touch on the senses (“See them big plantations burning / Hear the cracking of the whips / Smell that sweet magnolia blooming”).

In Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan, Michael Gray makes the interesting comparison to this song's title/refrain and Columbia's 1960s advertising slogan "No one can sing Dylan like Dylan".

I worked out the chords in the tunings I used to record the Sinatra songs (where the halfsteps between each string are: 4-3-2-3-4 instead of the standard guitar tuning’s: 5-5-5-4-5 - more about that here.) There are 2 guitars, one in open A6 and one in open C6 (the latter played as capo 3 on the former).

The rhythm guitar rhythm was inspired by City and Colour's The Death of Me. Ziv, who mixed and mastered the track, delayed the entire bass track a bit to make it sound more laid back and the product of a late night jam session.

Dylan's version starts in Dm/A7, this version is Am/E7, with the vocal line moved up 7 half steps. The song recorded here is based on 2 guitar parts, an acoustic rhythm guitar and an electric playing fills.

Acoustic guitar:

    In open C6 tuning (as played) ...  

       Am       E7     Am           Am   E7   G6   D6   F6  G6
E  ||------0--|---0--|---0--|-----||---|-0--|-7--|-2--|-5--|-7--||-
C  ||------9--|---8--|---9--|-----||---|-8--|-7--|-2--|-5--|-7--||---
A  ||:--------|------|------|----:||---|----|-7--|-2--|-5--|-7--||-
G  ||:-9-9----|-7----|-9----|----:||---|-7--|-7--|-2--|-5--|-7--||---
E  ||--8-8----|------|-8----|-----||---|----|-7--|-2--|-5--|-7--||---
C  ||--9-9----|-8----|-9----|-----||---|-8--|-7--|-2--|-5--|-7--||---

    ... and FYI the same thing in standard tuning (which would be impossible to play)  
       Am       E7     Am           Am   E7   G6   D6   F6  G6
E  ||------0--|---0--|---0--|-----||---|-0--|-7--|-2--|-5--|-7--|-----
B  ||------10-|---9--|---10-|-----||---|-9--|-8--|-3--|-6--|-8--|--
G  ||:-9------|-7----|-9----|----:||---|-7--|-9--|-4--|-7--|-9--|---
D  ||:-10-----|-6----|-10---|----:||---|-6--|-12-|-7--|-10-|-12-|---
A  ||--12-----|------|-12---|-----||---|----|-14-|-9--|-12-|-14-|---
E  ||---------|------|------|-----||---|----|-15-|-10-|-13-|-15-|---

Fills (electric guitar) - variations on:

   In open A6 tuning (as played) ...  

       Am       E7     Am           Am   E7   Em  Dadd2 F6  G6
C# ||--3------|-3-----|-3----|-----||---|-3--|-3--|-1-0|----|----||-
A  ||--3------|-2-5-2-|-3----|-----||---|-2--|-2--|-0--|----|----||---
F# ||:-3------|-2-----|-3----|----:||---|-2--|-1--|-0--|-3--|-5--||-
E  ||:-0------|-0-----|-0----|----:||---|-0--|-0--|-0--|-1--|-3--||---
C# ||---------|-------|------|-----||---|----|----|----|-1--|-3--||---
A  ||---------|-------|------|-----||---|----|----|----|-0--|----||----

    Introduction of the violin theme ("Bootleg whiskey in his hand")

C# ||---------------|-5-5---------|-
A  ||-2-0---0-2-..--|-4-4---4-4---|--
F# ||-----0---------|-0-0---2-2---|--
E  ||---------------|-------0-0---|-
C# ||---------------|-------------|---
A  ||---------------|-------------|--
Bass guitar
     Am         E7    Am      Am     E7      Am     Am        E7  G6   D6  F6  G7     
G |--------------------------|--------------------|------------------------------------|
D |:-------------------------|--------------------|-----------------------3-3-5-5--7--:|
A |:-------------------------|--------------------|-------------------5-5-------------:|
E |--5-5-5-5----0-0----5-5-5-|-5-5---0-0----5-5-5-|-5-5----0--0-2-3-3------------------|
     5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th time one octave higher - - - - - - - - |

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All text copyright © 2015 Tim Darling.