Discovered by Alan Lomax & Shirley Collins, championed by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, covered by The Rolling Stones and a major influence on Bonnie Raitt, Mississippi Fred McDowell was one of the finest blues guitarists of all time.
Ahead of the 40th anniversary of his death on the 3rd July 2012, blues writer Ken Smith takes a look back at the life and music of one of his heros.
The year was 1959. 55-year-old Fred McDowell was working in the fields, doing what he’d always done, grafting to earn a meagre living, completely unaware that events would soon unfold that would bring him to the attention of the world.
During the second half of that year, the indefatigable folklorist Alan Lomax and his assistant the English folk singer Shirley Collins, were engaged on a mammoth field trip touring the American south recording folk music for Atlantic, the New York company that had financed the operation. In August and September, the pair had discovered and recorded the Virginian mountain music of Hobart Smith, Texas Gladden, Estil C Ball, Wade Ward and Charlie Higgins as well as Old Regular Baptist Church music from Kentucky and Sacred Harp singing from the hills around Fyffe, Kentucky.
By the end of September they were deep in the hill country of North Mississippi, a region which Lomax believed was “The land where the blues began”. They had revisited Sid Hemphill, who Alan had previously recorded in 1942, and made more tapes of his melodic quill music and raucous fife and drum rhythms with Lucius Smith on banjo and drums. Also in the can were children’s ring game melodies sung by Miss Mattie Gardner and her friends, swinging congregational spirituals recorded at the Independence Church in Tyro and some terrific fiddle and guitar music from brothers Miles and Bob Pratcher but – they had no idea that they were on the verge of coming face to face with the most important discovery of all.
In her book America Over The Water (S.A.F Publishing, London 2007), Shirley Collins remembers the moment at the end of a hot September day when she and Lomax were working with the fife and drum band of Lonnie Young and his sons, Ed and Lonnie Junior, outside their home in Como, Mississippi. She wrote: “Towards dusk, a slight figure in dungarees and carrying a guitar appeared out of the trees and walked into the clearing. Lonnie introduced him. His name was Fred McDowell, he was a fifty year old farmer and he’d been picking cotton all day. I am ashamed to say that at first I resented the intrusion by a younger man into the atmosphere made by the old musicians with their ancient and fascinating sounds. I didn’t want that spell broken. Fred started to play bottleneck, a shimmering and metallic sound. His singing was quiet but strong and with a heart-stopping intensity. By the time he’d finished his first blues, we knew we were in the presence of a great and extraordinary musician. He sang 61 Highway. Alan wrote only one word in his book ‘Perfect’.”
I trust Shirley’s memories of the occasion more than Lomax’s which don’t quite agree and are much less evocative. He simply recalls going to see McDowell at Ed Young’s suggestion and wrote “At that time he was farming the same worn-out country that starved the Young family down to the bone. He and his wife, sitting on their gallery for some cool at the end of a hot August day [it was September], looked like a couple of hungry blackbirds.”
Whatever the circumstances of that first meeting, they lost no time in recording two dozen songs on September 21st , 22nd and 25th at Fred’s house with Miles Pratcher on second guitar and aunt Fanny Davis playing comb and paper on a couple of tracks. A spiritual was helped along with neighbours Sidney Carter and Rose Hemphill and Fred’s wife Annie Mae sang some pure gospel. McDowell’s repertoire consisted of his own material mixed with variants of better known songs that were to become blues standards like I’m Going Down To The River which was a reconstruction of John Estes’ Brownsville Blues, a version of Will Batts’ 1933 recording of 61 Highway Blues and one of Fred’s all-time favourite Sonny Boy Williamson songs, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
McDowell delivered them all with an urgency and confidence that delighted Shirley Collins: “I was so fortunate, so privileged to have been there at the discovery – for the outside world – of Fred McDowell, who justly became world-famous once people had heard these first recordings.” Alan Lomax said “The sound we captured made us all deliriously happy. The blues speaking through Fred, sounded like a deep-voiced black herald of the Loi (ancestral spirits or demi-gods in Haiti), with a silver-voiced heavenly choir answering him from the treble strings. When we played his recording back to him, he stomped up and down on the porch, whooping and laughing and hugging his wife. He knew he had been heard and felt his fortune had been made.”
It had been a long time coming but he wasn’t quite there yet…
I’m Going Down To The River
Fred McDowell was born 12th January 1904 in Rossville, Tennessee where he grew up working with his father farming 12 acres of cotton, peas and corn. The family wasn’t particularly musical apart from his sister who played guitar a little and his uncle Gene Shields who taught the young McDowell the rudiments of slide guitar. His main teacher was local guitarist Raymond Payne who, despite a degree of reluctance to share his secrets, showed Fred his hard-learned techniques.
McDowell soon became obsessed with the instrument and while his friends were playing ball or bothering the girls, Fred was to be found working out chords on an old borrowed guitar. The slide sound intrigued him and he experimented with a knife and a smoothed beef rib bone of the kind favoured by his Uncle Gene but he soon discovered the best effect came from the glass neck of a Gordon’s Gin bottle. During those early years, his closest companions were Vandy McKenna and the gloriously named Veeta Looney, both of whose families just happened to own record players. He said that the first blues record he remembered was Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Black Snake Blues which he described as “the prettiest little thing I ever heard”.
Fred left Rossville for Memphis when he was 20 and took on various hard labouring jobs like sacking corn, hooking logs, stacking wood for barrel makers, carting wood to the freight train factory and even portering at the prestigious Peabody Hotel. He would have been struggling to make a living and still didn’t have a guitar of his own and although he lived in Memphis from 1925 until the late thirties, there’s no evidence that he had any involvement with the city’s burgeoning blues scene which included such luminaries as Memphis Minnie, Robert Wilkins, Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, Gus Cannon and Tom Dickson. He claimed that he only got his own guitar as late as 1940 at around the time he moved to Lamar, Mississippi where he met and married Annie Mae and decided to settle near his sister in Como.
In 1940, Como, Panola County, Mississippi was just a rural rut in the road about a mile from Interstate 55 and 30 odd miles east of the Delta, 45 miles south of Memphis and 28 miles west of Oxford. At that time the majority of the population of around 500, were black farmers and labourers working on the land that surrounded the town. Most people would only want to go there for work or to fill-up at the gas station but the one thing that the area could boast was a rich musical tradition.
The North Mississippi Hills were alive with talented individuals who have made their mark on the history of American roots music to a remarkable degree. The blues guitarist Jack Owens was living in nearby Senatobia, rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers lived a few miles away in Holly Springs while Otha Turner, Napolean Strickland and Sid Hemphill were roaming the countryside whomping out their archaic fife and drum music. Hemphill was entertaining every week at country picnics with a fife and drum band that at times included his daughter Rosa Lee Hill and his granddaughter Jessie Mae Hemphill. Young guns RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough were getting interested in guitar and the teenage Luther Perkins was learning licks he’d use a few years later when he became a member of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three.
With his newly acquired first guitar of his own, Fred was perfectly placed to resume his musical education. As the years rolled on he learned a few tricks from his mentor, guitarist Eli Green and traded licks with other local bluesmen assimilating their music into his own fast developing style. Before long he had become one of the most loved and respected musicians around, in demand to play at picnics, fish fries, rural juke joints and especially at relaxed back-porch sessions where he would enthral everyone with his mastery of the guitar and the sheer power and energy of his performances. It was said that when Fred was in full flight it was hard to believe that only one man was playing.
For a full decade, Como and the surrounding countryside had Fred McDowell’s music all to themselves. He was cocooned in Panola County, living and playing in what blues expert Neil Slaven called “fathomless obscurity”. Of course, Fred wasn’t the only one. Even the musicians who had been discovered and recorded before the war were now all but forgotten by the greater world. Son House was working as a janitor in Rochester, New York; Furry Lewis was a street-sweeper in Memphis and Bukka White was working in a Memphis factory. Skip James was living out his life near Tunica; John Hurt in Avalon and Sleepy John Estes in Brownsville – every one of them completely unaware that they’d be recognised as cultural icons in the blues revival that would soon sweep the world.
1960 saw the release of Atlantic’s seven LP Southern Folk Heritage series of songs collected by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins. McDowell’s music stood out amongst the blues of Forest City Joe, Johnny Lee Moore, Boy Blue, Lonnie Young and more, convincing critics and connoisseurs that Fred was the most exciting country blues discovery. The Atlantic set was followed up by another 12 LP collection of Lomax’s 1959 recordings released as Southern Journey on the Prestige label with McDowell’s tracks again receiving rapturous praise.
In spite of all this, the 1960s folk revival was still at its very beginning, so things quietened down for a while leaving Fred back home in Como with some wonderful memories but considering the whole thing to have been an anti-climax. He continued living his simple life, working in the fields by day then performing locally at night for a few dollars. Weekends were spent howling the blues. In an interview with Mojo magazine, naming McDowell as his hero, RL Burnside reminisced, “When I was 19 or 20 Fred would come by and get me every weekend before he went out because he knew he was gonna get drunk. We’d go down to the juke joints, the biggest thing on a Saturday night, then we’d be over his house on Sundays. Fred would play right there on his porch and the yard would be full of people. I started playing good then and I never looked back – I just kept on goin!”
Presumably that was after church. Fellow musician Otha Turner told Luther Dickinson that he’d “pick up Fred every Friday afternoon and they would roam around all weekend playing house parties, juke joints and picnics. Bootleg liquor was a big part of the scene. But after these long weekends he played guitar at Hunter’s Chapel Church every Sunday.”
Religion was very important to Fred and he saw no problem in playing both gospel and blues. Many black Christians considered blues to be the devil’s music, believing that if you sang the blues you were paving your way to Hell, but Fred obviously shared John Lee Hooker’s view that “when spirituals was born it was born on the blues side”. Luther Dickinson said of Fred: “He lived the bluesman dichotomy of gospel and blues”, evidenced by the fact that Fred always included glorious gospel songs in his repertoire like Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning, Jesus On The Mainline, Glory Hallelujah and When I Lay My Burden Down – not forgetting the song most associated with him, You Got To Move.
When I Lay My Burden Down
The next indication that interest was building came in 1962 when Dick Spottswood, a student in Washington DC who loved the Lomax recordings, simply wanted more. On a whim, Dick and his wife drove to Como where they received a warm welcome from the McDowells and their neighbours. Spottswood had taken some recording equipment and was delighted when Fred happily agreed to perform on the assurance that his wages would be covered. A true fan, it was never Spottswood’s intention to make money from the recordings saying, “I was just making them for the sake of making them, I wasn’t thinking in any kind of commercial sense. Just to send copies to the Library of Congress was quite enough for me.” True enough, it was more than 20 years before he licensed these first post-discovery recordings to English blues connoisseur Bruce Bastin who pared down the material to make an excellent LP released on his Heritage label.
Another two years went by and the excitement of the previous recording sessions had somewhat faded as Fred continued labouring in blistering temperatures for little pay from sun-up to sunset. But now was the time that things would really change when Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records entered his life. On 13th February 1964 he arrived at Fred’s yard to find him climbing down from a big farm tractor after a hard day’s work. The McDowells’ hospitality astonished Strachwitz. They fed him and insisted he sleep in their double bed while they used a makeshift pallet on the floor of their small living room. During that visit Chris recorded songs that have haunted McDowell fans ever since – masterworks like Louise, Write Me A Few Lines and Kokomo Blues.
This first meeting was the beginning of a long friendship between the two men with McDowell eventually recording four classic LPs for Arhoolie which, thanks to the company’s worldwide sales, got the music out to more than just blues aficionados, catching the attention of musicians like Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Mike Russo and Phoebe Snow who were among the first to sing his praises. The Rolling Stones heard his song You Got To Move and promptly recorded it for their Sticky Fingers album earning massive royalties for McDowell. Strachwitz said “I was able to give Fred this big check, the biggest money he’d ever seen”.
Around the time that Chris Strachwitz was searching the Southern states recording the likes of Clifton Chenier and Lightnin’ Hopkins for Arhoolie, journalism student George Mitchell and his wife Cathy were going out at weekends looking for musicians just because they were fans. It started as a hobby. The pickings were rich and during those years they found and recorded bluesmen like Sleepy John Estes, Buddy Moss, Will Shade, Furry Lewis, Houston Stackhouse, Big Joe Williams and Joe Callicott, who had all had their day in the spotlight before the war but had drifted back into relative obscurity.
In 1967 the Mitchells pitched up in Como where, despite his recent fame, Fred McDowell was happily helping to pump gas at the service station. When Mitchell suggested a recording session, Fred insisted that they hire his old harmonica-playing buddy Johnny Woods as accompanist and three hours later they found him dead drunk on the porch of a shack in Senatobia. Inside the house, the party was still going on so Fred and his guitar were welcomed with open arms. Eventually, the revived Woods was persuaded to join in the session and their version of Shake ‘Em On Down rocked the joint to such a degree that Mitchell could hardly wait for the next day’s recording session where Fred and Johnny sat face to face, playing in perfect pitch, time and harmony, recording without any second takes or practice even though, apart from that one song the night before, they hadn’t actually played together for eight years!
By now, the endless toil in hot fields was a thing of the past. He was touring America performing at coffee houses and universities and recording new material that was coming out on labels like Testament, Black Lion, Milestone, Biograph, Blue Thumb and Transatlantic. He appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, the American Folk Blues Festivals that toured Europe in the mid-sixties and made successful tours of Great Britain by the end of the decade.
Although he was in big demand, his closest friend from the music business was 19-year-old Bonnie Raitt. They met in the late 60s when her then boyfriend, Dick Waterman, became Fred’s manager. Opening quite a few shows for Fred, she immediately adored him. At the time Bonnie was struggling to perfect her slide guitar technique. Fred, who called her ‘Bunny’, was generous with his help and advice and she visited Como many times where Fred and Annie Mae treated her like she was their own granddaughter. Bonnie went on to record two McDowell songs, Kokomo and Write Me A Few Of Your Lines, and dedicate the album Give It Up to Fred. She has always credited Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace as her major mentors and to this day, at any one of her sell-out concerts, she’s liable to yell out “Anyone here from Como tonight?!”
Fred had come to be regarded as one of the most important country blues musicians and the major post-war blues discovery among those who hadn’t recorded before the war. The 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival programme says: “Fred McDowell is undoubtedly the finest bottleneck player alive, and many believe he is the best who has ever lived…If one listens very carefully to Fred it soon becomes apparent the guitar sings every word he sings. This is Mr McDowell’s style, and in the performance of it he has no equal.” Blues connoisseur Pete Welding acknowledged: “Fred McDowell is a blues singer and guitarist of such extraordinary power, emotional intensity and strong individuality that he must be counted among the most significant discoveries of recent years.”
Although Fred could have carried on playing his music in the same old way to continued acclaim, he decided to make a radical change. He’d been experimenting with electric guitar at home for years but it hadn’t been heard on record until 1969 when Capitol Records released I Do Not Play No Rock ‘n’ Roll. Just as Dylan had struggled for acceptance when he went electric, Fred suffered the same reaction from certain blues purists. The rest of us, however, found that the amplified guitar supported by bass and drums added thrilling new dimensions of drive and energy to his music and his obvious relish of the beefed-up sound shone through.
The piercing slide work was simply magnificent, the propulsive rhythmic attack and the strident runs on the bass strings all sounded much more forceful at a higher volume. For Fred, it was the logical way for his music to develop and most of the blues critics agreed. One small gripe was that his repertoire was being repeated but that was surely due to unimaginative record producers rather than Fred himself. Most importantly, I Do Not Play No Rock ‘n’ Roll was a huge success. The album’s high profile reviews in the rock press introduced Fred’s music to a younger, no less appreciative audience who lapped up the new sound.
Any criticism of repetitious material faded to dust in autumn 1970 when Arhoolie released its electric album: Fred McDowell And His Blues Boys. It had been recorded a few months before the Capitol album in a session where Fred, excited at his chance to play with a small combo, put in an elevated performance of inspired guitar playing whipped up by the second guitar of Mike Russo and the admirably controlled drumming of Bob Jones. The UK magazine Blues Unlimited, noting the album’s new material, which included Dankins Farm, Meet Me Down In Froggy Bottom, Ethel Mae Blues and a rollicking version of Levee Camp Blues, described Fred’s amplified sound as “something different – an incredibly tough electric sound. With the load of carrying rhythm taken from him, Fred really branches out, filling in beautifully.”
Until 1969, Fred recorded using his old wood-bodied National or his acoustic Hofner guitar and it was noted that he never used picks when he played them. His first electric guitar was a red, dual pickup cheap version of a Gibson ES-335 that was soon superseded by a Gibson Trini Lopez Standard which he used for the rest of his life. The electric guitars were always strung with Black Diamond Electric Strings – the pack with the unwound G string being essential. He used a plastic thumb pick and plastic pick on his index finger and a short glass slide about an inch and a half long, made from the neck of a Gordon’s Gin bottle.
His tuning was standard, open A or open E. In standard tuning he’d play in the key of E with the bottleneck on his little finger and for open E it would go on the ring finger. Fred looked after his bottlenecks. It seems he only had six in his entire playing life and once before a gig, Tom Pomposello, who was there to play second guitar, caught Fred frantically searching his guitar case before whooping with relief at finding his bottleneck. “Tom, if I’d lost that” he said, “I might have well turned around and went back home.”
Fred’s style was unique. His open chord tunings and rhythmically incisive bottleneck playing coupled with his pleading, melancholic vocals made a new sound in the blues. His fluid, improvisational and dynamic approach to familiar traditional tunes turned standard blues patterns into something innovative and exciting.
Electric or acoustic, Fred McDowell could make his guitar sing, squeal and percolate without missing a beat. His slide could be as soulful as Johnny Shines’ and his steady rolling picking as confident as Robert Lockwood’s – but no-one could equal his funky, fluid, attacking rhythmic runs. Apart from Bonnie Raitt, who came close to his soulfulness on the couple of songs she attempted, I know of no other guitarist who gets anything remotely near his sound. Copyists fade into insignificance when compared to the master who would set up the boogie beat then stuff it with slashing lines of slide and layering in buzzing bass and single note runs before plunging back in with more slide fireworks.
In spite of all the great reviews, accolades and adoration, Fred McDowell remained a shy, modest man who went through life carrying a simple dignity. He was revered in the blues world and enjoyed every second of his late found fame but he could never have imagined that he would come to be regarded as an all-time great and be an inspiration to musicians that can trace their music back in a direct line through Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside to Mississippi Fred McDowell. Listen to The White Stripes, Jon Spencer, Thee Shams, The North Mississippi Allstars, Kenny Brown, 20 Miles, The Neckbones and The Black Keys – the lineage is undeniable.
Mississippi Fred’s last recordings were made at the legendary Gaslight Club in New York on 5th Nov 1971. Tom Pomposello supported on bass or second guitar and Fred was in excellent form performing old blues standards and some of his well loved songs like Someday and You Got To Move as well as a spine-chilling masterpiece performance of his intense slow blues Mercy and a particularly sizzling version of Shake ‘Em On Down, which includes Fred’s wry introduction, “You know I don’t play no rock’ n’ roll but this one sho’ sound like it”.
In July of the following year he died of cancer in a Memphis hospital. He was 68 years old and it had been only 12 years since he had picked up his guitar and taken that fateful walk out of the trees towards Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins.
He was buried in Hammond Hill Baptist Church cemetery between Como and Senatobia wearing a gold lame suit given to him by the Rolling Stones. 21 years later, on 6th August 1993, in a ceremony presided over by his friend and manager Dick Waterman, the original damaged and inaccurate marker was removed and replaced by a stone paid for by Bonnie Raitt and Chris Strachwitz. The back of the stone is inscribed with a verse of his song You Got To Move.
You may be high, you may be low,
You may be rich, you may be poor,
But when the Lord gets ready
You got to move.
You Got To Move
Bonnie Raitt: “I can’t imagine my life without the deep personal and musical impact of Fred McDowell. Touring together in the early seventies and being able to still hear him on record has been an enduring gift.”
Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie Records: “It can be stated unqualifiedly that Fred McDowell was one of the most significant blues discoveries of the folk music revival of the 1960s, a singer and guitarist of such commanding, gripping power and originality that he must be numbered among the leading exponents of the pure country blues, now or anytime.”
Luther Dickinson, The North Mississippi Allstars: “Fred McDowell’s music is the sounds of the Hills. It voices the history and culture of this land and its people. The times change but he left such a mark on the local musical collective consciousness that his influence is still heard in the current musicians of the area – two generations later, filtered through rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and rap. His music is embedded into the language of rock ‘n’ roll and the blues.”
G. Love (aka Garrett Dutton), hip-hop blues musician: “Fred McDowell is one of – if not the cleanest slide guitar players ever, he has such a tone coming out of that slide. Listen to the singing of Fred, he is as deep and hauntingly passionate as any one of the great blues singers. You can feel his music deep.”
Henry Rollins, musician, activist, writer and actor who played with Black Flag and now leads The Rollins Band: “One of the most devastating blues players is Fred McDowell. I got every record he’s ever done that I’ve been able to find. He’s a monster!”
THE ALAN LOMAX/SHIRLEY COLLINS RECORDINGS 1959
Fred McDowell – The First Recordings (Rounder CD1718)
Southern Journey Vol 1: Voices From The American South (Rounder CD1701)
One track on this anthology – Wished I Was In Heaven Sitting Down.
Southern Journey Vol 3: 61 Highway Blues (Rounder CD1703)
Six tracks on this anthology.
Southern Journey Vol 6: Sheep Sheep, Don’tcha Know The Road?
(Rounder CD1706) One solo track, one with James Shorty and one with Denise & Mattie Gardner.
Sounds Of The South (Atlantic SD1351)
Eight tracks on 4 CD box set – currently unavailable.
Mississippi Fred McDowell – Down Home Blues 1959 (JSP4227)
Virtually the whole Lomax/Collins blues sessions from the 1959 visit to the Hill Country on two CDs. 24 tracks by Fred; also features John Dudley, Ed & Lonnie Young, Miles & Bob Pratcher, Forrest City Joe, Boy Blue and Willie Jones.
THE DICK SPOTTSWOOD RECORDINGS 1962
Mississippi Fred McDowell (Rounder CD2138)
The 1962 recordings first saw the light of day on a Heritage LP in 1982. It was 1995 before they appeared on this Rounder CD which is stuffed with top class material and excellent musicianship made even more enjoyable by Tom Pomposello’s heartfelt sleeve notes.
THE ARHOOLIE RECORDINGS
Mississippi Fred McDowell – You Gotta Move (Arhoolie CD304)
The first tracks Fred ever recorded for Chris Strachwitz, mostly from the first two LPs and includes two tracks by his mentor Eli Green and the version of You Gotta Move that the Rolling Stones covered.
Keith Richard: “Maybe once every six months someone’ll come up with an album, an Arhoolie album of Fred McDowell. And you’d say “There’s another cat, there’s another one – just blowin’ my mind! Like one album every six months.”
22 tracks – half blues, half gospel; stunning guitar throughout.
Mississippi Fred McDowell – This Ain’t No Rock ‘n’ Roll (Arhoolie CD441)
Half of this CD was originally issued on LP as Fred McDowell And His Blues Boys and were his first recordings using electric guitar. The other half are loose, spontaneous recordings with Fred on electric guitar and John Francis on drums.
Five tracks of studio recordings made during the week of the Memphis Blues Festival in June 1969. Also includes the music of Napoleon Strickland, Otha Turner, Furry Lewis and Memphis Piano Red.
A well constructed compilation from the Arhoolie CDs.
HIS BIGGEST SELLER
Mississippi Fred McDowell – I Do Not Play No Rock ‘n’ Roll (Capitol 8339192 CDP) The first released recordings of Fred playing the electric guitar in a small combo format. This is the original LP with another 11 songs from the session recorded at Malaco Studios, Jackson, Mississippi in 1969.
THE GEORGE MITCHELL RECORDINGS 1967
Mississippi Fred McDowell & Johnny Woods – Mama Says I’m Crazy (Fat Possum 03642) 11 stupendous sides including the tremendous version of Shake ‘Em On Down mentioned above. Apart from one drunken session the night before, Fred and Johnny hadn’t played together for eight years. George Mitchell supplies the short but succinct sleevenotes.
Mississippi Delta Blues In The 60s Volume 1: Blow My Blues Away (Arhoolie CD401) Just two tracks by McDowell and Woods on this great anthology: My Jack Don’t Need No Water and Three O’Clock In The Morning.
The George Mitchell Collection (Fat Possum FP1114)
Only a couple of tracks on this 7-CD set, but Otha Turner, Rosa Lee Hill, Johnny Woods, The Como Fife & Drum Band and Jessie Mae Hemphill are all well worth investigating…
THE BILL FERRIS RECORDINGS 1967
Mississippi Fred McDowell – Come And Found You Gone: The Bill Ferris Recordings (Devildown CD001)
Writer and folklorist Bill Ferris visited the McDowells in 1967, the same year as the Mitchells and recorded Fred at a house-party at Napolean Strickland’s place. The 16 tunes presented here include some tough blues from Fred, six spirituals with his wife Annie Mae and a couple of blues with an unknown vocalist. While it’s not the most essential CD, it’s an invaluable insight into how Fred interacted with his friends and family and has some very nice moments where Annie Mae takes over the show!
Fred McDowell & Annie Mae McDowell – Get Right Church
FRED MCDOWELL IN LONDON
Mississippi Fred McDowell – Steakbone Slide Guitar (Tradition TC1012) During his 1969 tour of the UK, he recorded enough material for two LPs which were released as Live In London Volumes 1 & 2 on the Transatlantic label under the auspices of the National Blues Federation of Britain. This CD features the tracks from Volume 2 only.
The 1969 live concert at The Mayfair Hotel in London with Fred playing the big red electric guitar, mostly hard blues but a couple of gospel tunes including When I Lay My Burden Down, accompanied by the vocals of Jo-Ann Kelly.
HIS FINAL RECORDINGS 1971
Mississippi Fred McDowell – Shake ‘Em on Down (Fat Possum CD1149)
Recorded live at The Gaslight with Tom Pomposello on bass and second guitar; Fred plays beautifully and the adoring audience hang on his every word.
Thanks go to Shirley Collins and Val Wilmer for their valuable contributions.
Words: Ken Smith
Photos: courtesy of Arhoolie Records and Val Wilmer as credited
Next month sees the reissue of Telarc’s Fred McDowell tribute album Preachin’ The Blues: The Music Of Mississippi Fred McDowell featuring recordings by the likes of Charlie Musselwhite, Anders Osborne, Tab Benoit and more – pre-order now.