Mississippi Fred McDowell - Biography
By J Poet
Acoustic bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell was one of the masters unearthed by the 60s blues and folk revival, a self-made musician with a singular style and a dedication to the roots of the blues. Even when he picked up an electric guitar for his first major label album, I Do Not Play No Rock’N’Roll (1969 Capital, 1995 Capital Expanded Edition), he stayed close to the delta soul that inspired him. Alan Lomax first recorded him, but it was Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records that put him on the map. Fred McDowell, Vol. 1 (1965 Arhoolie) and Fred McDowell, Vol. 2 (1966 Arhoolie) electrified fans and made him a star. He went from poor dirt farmer to blues icon almost overnight playing the Newport Folk Festival to rave reviews and toured the college folk/blues circuit mesmerizing people with his low-key virtuosity. Unhappily, his career only lasted seven years. In 1971 he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1972 at age 68.
McDowell was born in Tennessee sometime around 1904. He started guitar early and my 14 was playing for down home dances in his hometown. When his parents died, an older sister who lived in Mississippi took him in. His uncle, Gene Shields, played bottleneck guitar using hollow beef bone for a slide, and McDowell was captivated by the sound. He sanded down the neck of a Gordon’s gin bottle to make his first slide, and quickly developed his own style of blending rhythm and melody.
In 1927 McDowell lived in Memphis, playing on the street for tips and working a backbreaking day job at a feed mill. In 1929, he moved back to Mississippi to work on a cotton farm and frequented juke joints where he saw Charlie Patton, Sid Hemphill, and other blues pickers. He was an avid student, soaking up the techniques of other players, greatly hindered by the fact that he couldn’t afford his own guitar. He played in open tunings, singing in a deep, primal growl and sprinkled inventive lead lines into his driving rhythms. In 1941 he finally bought his own guitar and refined his style, but he was still a farmer who played music at night and on the weekend.
Alan Lomax recorded some of McDowell’s music for the Southern Folk Heritage Series (1960 Atlantic) reissued by Rounder in 2002 as The land Where the Blues Began. Listeners jumped on the McDowell tracks, including Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz who went to Como and recorded Fred McDowell, Vol. 1 (1965 Arhoolie) and Fred McDowell, Vol. 2 (1966 Arhoolie) the albums that made McDowell a star at 55. He was able to quit his day job and go on the road, making a living with his music.
McDowell stayed on the road for the rest of his life, and recorded for about a dozen labels. Good bets are: My Home Is in the Delta (1964 Testament), Mississippi Fred McDowell (1971 Rounder), home recordings from 1962 released shortly before his death, Mississippi Blues (2003 Black Lion) more bare bones home recordings from 1965 featuring his seven minute riff on Bill Broonzy’s “Louise,” Mama Says I'm Crazy (2002 Fat Possum), which is a reissue of the acoustic jam Mississippi Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods (1977 Rounder), and Long Way from Home (1990 Fantasy Original Blues Classics) a studio set from 1965.
In 1969 Capital asked him to play an electric guitar for I Do Not Play No Rock’N’Roll (1969 Capital, 1995 Capital Expanded Edition). It may not be rock, but it does rock, and introduced McDowell and his music to Bonnie Raitt who later recorded a few McDowell tunes; he also gave Raitt slide guitar lessons. More McDowell albums worth your time are: Live in New York (1971 Oblivion) captures McDowell at a live gig, In London, Vol. 2 (1969 Transatlantic) is a live gig with electric guitar, Heritage of the Blues (2003 Hightone) early recordings from 1963 - 1968, and Levee Camp Blues (1998 Testament) a reissue of Long Way from Home: the Blues of Fred McDowell (1966 Milestone) which includes many obscure tunes McDowell seldom performed live.