McTell's life was pathway towards the blues stylings of the day sound almost pre-ordained; born blind in one eye between 1898 or 1903, he soon last his remaining vision early in childhoord. With an extraordinarily musical family, and being left to the school for the blind with little prospects other than music, Blind Willie McTell kept up the mantle of his family's tradition. He'd grown up without a father, and when his mother died when was as young as 17 (in the early 1920s), he left his hometown and set out to be a working musician.
He seemed to have led a life of a true nomad, working as a street musician, and eventually landing his first recording session in 1927 with Victor Records in Atlanta, Georgia. He we on to supplement his street performance earnings with these record deals, using various nicknames like Hot Shot Willie, Georgia Bill, Blind Sammie, Pig & Whistle Red, and Blind Willie. As a street musician, he wasn't necessarily like a begger, but he'd play informal outdoor concerts around barbecue shacks for example, for entertaining the patrons. It seems fair to guess that he started playing a 12-string so that he could be heard acoustically among the raucous crowds.
Fortunately, McTell wasn't among the cohort of musicians who passed away, or faded to obscurity, after the 1930s. Not only did he record a spoken interview & "leave-the-tape-running" recording session with Alan Lomax in 1940 (for which he was paid the equivalent of $200 in 2022 money), but some of his greatest stuff is from his 1949 Atlantic Records recordings, and his 1956 "Last Session" recordings.
In his waning years, McTell became a preacher at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta, and later died in 1959 in his home state. A fan of McTell's music, David Fulmer, paid for an upgraded version of McTell's grave headstone in 2011, and donated McTell's original headstone to the Thomson-McDuffie Museum for display.