Unheralded for most of his life, “Mississippi” Fred McDowell enjoyed belated success after meeting musicologist Alan Lomax. As his companion Shirley Collins recounts: ”Fred started to play bottleneck guitar, a shimmering and metallic sound. His singing was quiet but strong and with a heartstopping intensity. By the time he d finished his first blues, we knew we were in the presence of a great and extraordinary musician.” Fred died today in 1972.
Death of blues musician Fred McDowell, aged 68. Tennessee-born McDowell turned to playing slide guitar in order to eke out a living, busking around Memphis before setting in the farming community of Como, Mississippi and only playing occasionally.
Enter Alan Lomax, who came to Como in the company of English folk performer Shirley Collins in 1959 and persuaded Fred to contribute to his American Folk Music series of recordings.
That in turn led to Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz to record McDowell’s untainted acoustic blues playing and singing, entranced not only by his delivery but also a repertoire that spanned decades and was derived from playing with and witnessing country blues players, both renowned and obscure.
Quite simply, McDowell was a living embodiment of an apparently extinct genre and both volumes of his recordings were successful. As a result he began playing at various folk clubs, graduating to the Newport Folk Festival and American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe.
Switching to electric guitar for his 1969 album, “This Ain’t No Rock ‘n’ Roll”, McDowell found his repertoire covered by the likes of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan passed on his playing style to aspiring players including Bonnie Raitt and Jo-Ann Kelly. He passed away in 1972.
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And here’s some footage of McDowell in action: