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Blind Willie McTell becomes Statesboros second Legend in the Arts
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Jimmy Hayes, right, browses the Blind Willie McTell exhibit in the Legends Gallery at the Averitt Center Thursday after McTell's induction ceremony. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

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Video if Blind Willie exhibit opening at Averitt Center

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    The Statesboro Arts Council named their second Legend in the Arts during a ceremony held at the Averitt Center. Blind Willie McTell was inducted into the local “hall of fame,” and an exhibition was opened in the Legend’s Gallery in his honor Thursday evening.
    Statesboro Legends are selected from local artists and musicians who have made a significant contribution to their craft. Requirements for consideration include living in Statesboro for at least two consecutive years. The individual or group must also be known nationally or well-known regionally. In addition, they must either have longevity of career or have made a considerable impact to their art over a shorter period of time.
        McTell, a blues musician who grew up in Statesboro and recorded from 1927 to 1955, was relatively unknown until after his death. His music hails from the era of 78s and 45s and inspired a diverse group of musicians from Deep Purple to Pat Travers. The Allman Brothers famously did a cover of his "Statesboro Blues." Bob Dylan wrote a song called "Nobody Sings the Blues Like Willie McTell." The White Stripes dedicated an album to him and covered his song "Your Southern Can is Mine."
    The Legends Committee, consisting of Cleve White, Carol Thompson and Dr. Carolyn Hobbs, selects a new inductee every odd year.
    "It's a great privilege, knowing his history, to stand up here and induct him into the hall of fame," said White, the Legends Committee chair.
    The first inductee to the Statesboro Legends was the "Lady of 6000 Songs," Emma Kelly.
    The exhibit, commissioned by the Statesboro Arts Council, consists of a centerpiece and 12 graphic displays that chronicle the life and history of McTell.
    Collin Smith is the exhibit designer and curator for the project. He is a graphic designer, recently graduated from Georgia Southern University, who said he gets his talent from his mother.
    "I've always had an attraction to art because my mother was an artist," Smith said. "She's mostly a painter. It's not what she did for a living, it's just something she really enjoyed to do."
    Tim Chapman, executive director for the Averitt Center, talked about the modern style of the exhibit.
    "We wanted to do something a little more innovative than some traditional art forms," said Chapman.
    Smith said he stayed with primarily blue and white tones to emphasize Willie's blues style. He also incorporated images of the guitar and white, shadowy images of McTell.
    "The white image of him was symbolic. He had a keen sense of memory, touch and feel," Smith said of McTell. "In a sense, he was giving himself up to the guitar. Hence the ghost image symbolizes that the guitar almost played itself."
    The exhibit will be hanging in the Legends Gallery, on the second floor of the Averitt Center, until the end of September. After that, a permanent piece will be installed at the center to honor its second Legends inductee.

History of Blind Willie McTell
    William Samuel McTell was born on May 5, 1901 in Thompson, Ga. He had the hard early life that one traditional associates with that of a dramatic blues musician.
    Born blind in one eye, he later lost his remaining sight early in childhood, likely due to genetic diabetes. That didn't stop him from pursuing music or engaging in his love for reading.
    He was abandoned by an alcoholic father at a young age and his mother fought to make ends meet. Thanks to the support of friends and relatives, though, he hardly wanted for anything. Eventually he and his mother made their way to Statesboro around 1907 due to the booming lumber industry.
    His mama taught him to play guitar as did an elder of his church. He began playing around Statesboro and the surrounding areas at the age of ten and started touring as a teenager. With family in Augusta, Macon and Savannah he always had a place to stay. He developed a good reputation wherever he went.
    Willie was a particularly educated man for the time, thanks to his family and patrons who had taken interest in his musical ability. He frequented schools for the blind all over the country but spent a majority of his school time at the Georgia State School for the Blind in Macon, Ga, where he learned to read braille and received formal music training.
    In many ways, his guitar playing interfered with his love for reading because the callouses from playing guitar made it difficult to recognize certain symbols in the braille language. That didn't stop him from keeping many books in his Atlanta home.
    Though he was blind, many folks referred to him as "ear-sighted" since he was adept at pinpointing the source of sounds around him. He also relied much on his memory, as well as his hearing, and was able to walk around town by counting the number of steps from street to street. He could give directions as well as any sighted person.
    In 1926, he began recording and recorded his first record with RCA Victor in October 1927 at a studio in Atlanta. He recorded over 100 album titles during the 30's and 40's.
    Many of his songs were not produced until after his death . It is likely that there are more recordings out there that are not attributed to him since he recorded under so many different names, early in his career  — the best being Red Hot Willie Glaze.
    His final recording was made for Ed Rhodes, in 1957, who used it primarily for his own purposes. It was later found when he was cleaning out the attic. Rhodes sold the recording which was remastered into the "Last Recordings of Willie McTell."
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