In Dylan's Visions of Sin
, Christopher Ricks makes some interesting observations about "Blind Willie McTell," staring with the line "This land is condemned."
Ricks ties this line all the way back to one of Dylan's first recorded songs, "Song To Woody
," first put down in 1961. The song was an homage to folk singer Woody Guthrie, Dylan's musical hero. In Ricks' assessment, "Blind Willie McTell," which is also an homage to a musician, is connected back in many ways to "Song to Woody."
Guthrie is perhaps best known for his song, "This Land Is Your Land
," which features the chorus, "This land is your land, this land is our land." The term "this land" can actually be drawn back even further, though, to the Bible. It has its own "substantial" entry in Cruden's Concordance to the Bible
. The term appears in Genesis 12:7 and 24:7("Unto thy seed will I give this land"), and Exodus 32:13 ("I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of I will give unto your seed").
So, when Dylan evokes the term "this land" in "Blind Willie McTell," he is evoking Guthrie's song, which itself is evoking the Bible. This makes it all the more powerful when Dylan finishes the line, "is condemned."
Ricks notes that these themes, reflecting back on "Song To Woody" and the Bible, continue throughout the song. The line, "But power and greed and corruptible seed, seem to be all that there is," clearly alludes to the New Testament's First Epistle of Peter 1:23 ("being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever").
As the song's narrator sits in the St. James Hotel contemplating the apparently grim nature of existence, he ends with the refrain, "And I know no one can sing the blues, like Blind Willie McTell." It seems a hollow sentiment, but Rickets doesn't think so, pointing to it as a declaration of "art's being a glory of man that does not wither."
Further coloring the meaning of the song is a quote from the sleeve notes for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
: "What made the real blues singers so great is that they were able to state all the problems they had; but at the same time, they were standing outside of them and could look at them. And in that way, they had them beat."
Ricks also connects the line, "I smell the sweet magnolia blooming" to "Strange Fruit
," with its line "Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, and the sudden smell of burning flesh."