Originally created 05/12/00

Ramblin' Rhodes: Blind Willie had a soulmate



When Ruth Kate Seabrooks died on Oct. 3, 1991, her obituary in The Augusta Chronicle indicated she had lived an everyday life.

It noted that the 80-year-old native of Jefferson County, Ga., had been living in Wrens and that she was a retired registered nurse. It also noted she had been a member of Spread Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Stapleton, Ga., serving as a stewardess, vice president of the missionary society and on the board of trustees.

But there was no mention of her being a pioneer blues recording artist in the 1930s and the widow of one of the world's greatest blues artists, Blind Willie McTell.

On Saturday, blues fans will honor her late husband and former singing partner at the seventh annual Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival near Thomson. (See Page 2 for a preview of the festival.)

William Samuel McTier was born outside Thomson on May 5, 1901. Some sources say a teacher at a school for the blind misunderstood him and changed the spelling of his name to McTell. Mrs. Seabrooks said in a 1977 interview that somebody on his father's side disguised the family name because they were "big whiskey still people."

In 1933, Mr. McTell was performing regularly around the Augusta area and had recorded for Victor (later RCA), Columbia, Okeh and Vocalion records.

He was booked that Christmas to perform at Paine College, which also was a high school at the time. Ruthy (later changed to Ruth) Kate Williams was a student at the high school.

"My daddy (a preacher) used to say that God gave everybody a talent to make a living," she told me for an article in 1981. "My talent and Willie's was singing the blues."

Miss Williams sang on the program for the Paine College Christmas reception and impressed Mr. McTell so much that he asked someone to bring her over to meet him.

They applied for a marriage license on Jan. 10, 1934, at the Aiken County Courthouse and were married by a notary public the next day.

Over the next six years, the McTells performed and recorded together in places such as Chicago and Atlanta, sharing bills with legendary artists such as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Bessie Smith.

In late June 1936, according to blues writer David Evans, they joined Piano Red (Willie Perryman) to record 12 blues songs for Vocalion Records in the studio of radio station WRDW in Augusta.

The outbreak of World War II led to the McTells' separation. She had obtained a nursing certificate from Grady Hospital in Atlanta in 1939. Her mother had always wanted her to be a nurse.

In February 1942, Mrs. McTell took a job as a civil service nurse at Fort Gordon. Mr. McTell stayed in Atlanta, where performing jobs were more plentiful. They often visited each other in Atlanta and Augusta, but they grew apart. Still, as late as 1957, he visited is wife in Augusta and told her that he had been called to take up preaching.

They did not divorce, according to Mrs. McTell.

On Aug. 19, 1959, Mr. McTell died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the state hospital in Milledgeville, Ga. He had been admitted under the name of Willie McTier. Mrs. McTell visited him in Milledgeville the week before his death.

She subsequently married Johnny Seabrooks, had two children (April and Ernest), was widowed again and led a fairly quiet life after retiring from the Fort Gordon hospital in September 1971.

A historic marker commemorates Blind Willie McTell's musical accomplishments at his grave in Thomson, but there is no similar marker a few miles up Georgia Highway 17 in Stapleton to mark the grave of Mrs. Seabrooks.

Only those who know her story bear witness to it being the final resting place of a blues pioneer.

Don Rhodes has written about country music for 29 years. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or at ramblin@groupz.net.