Born January 12, c. 1904, near Rossville, TN; died of cancer, July 3, 1972, in Memphis, TN; son of Jimmy McDowell (a farmer) and Ida Cureay (a farmer); married Annie Mae Collins, 1940; children: one.
Although he was born in Tennessee, folks called Fred McDowell "Mississippi Fred" because he was a master practitioner of the Mississippi Delta blues. McDowell "was one of the greatest rural blues performers to be discovered by folklorists in the 1950s," wrote one correspondent in Cadence. Frets Magazine called him "one of the greatest traditional bottleneck guitarists who ever lived." In liner notes to the first volume of Mississippi Delta Blues Jam in Memphis, Pete Welding described McDowell as "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."
McDowell was born just east of Memphis, near Rossville, Tennessee, on January 12, shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. (Oldtimers who remember him as a youngster put the year at about 1904.) Because he was orphaned early, his older, married sister took him to live with her in Mississippi. Blues afficionado Tom Pomposello reminisced about McDowell in Frets Magazine. He quoted McDowell as saying, "When I was a boy, the first blues record I ever heard was Blind Lemon Jefferson singing 'Black Snake Moan.' 'O-oh ain't got no mama, now.' Man, I tell you, I thought that was the prettiest little thing I'd ever heard."
McDowell played bottleneck guitar, which in his case meant that he wore part of a bottleneck--less than an inch wide--on the third finger of his chording hand, making it possible to play melody and rhythm with both hands. He fashioned the bottlenecks himself, working them down until they fit his fingers perfectly. McDowell remembered his uncle Gene Shields as the first guitarist he ever saw playing in the bottleneck style.
Shields's rather unorthodox method involved filing down the beef bone from a steak until it was smooth and playing with it placed on his little finger. The first time McDowell tried it, he used a pocket knife to recreate the sound his uncle made. He quickly realized that he would have to switch to a glass bottleneck to get the volume and clarity he was looking for. McDowell used one just about an inch long from a Gordon's gin bottle.
Shields played in a trio with a harmonica player named Cal Payne, who introduced McDowell to the blues classic "John Henry." Payne's son Raymond was a good guitar player, McDowell told Pomposello, "but if you'd walk into the room he'd put the guitar down so you couldn't see what he was doing. Then he'd make some kind of excuse, 'I'm tired now' or 'My fingers hurt.'" Pomposello thought this was one reason McDowell was always so open about his own playing. "Other musicians might try to lose you when they play with you, to make themselves look better than you," he'd say, "but they don't know how bad it makes them look."
In 1926 McDowell moved back to Memphis for work. He stacked sacks of yellow corn bigger than himself for the Buck-Eye Feed Mill, and in 1929 returned to Mississippi to pick cotton. He'd begun hearing records by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton that impressed him. While at a work camp near Cleveland, Mississippi, he went to a juke joint--a music and gambling club for rural blacks where many famous jazz and blues musicians got their starts--and saw Patton, Sid Hemphill, and Eli "Booster" Green perform. These legendary players had a great influence on McDowell. He learned from everyone he could, but he'd often say, according to Pomposello, "Even if you'd be showing me, I'd have to go off on my own and get it my way. They'd all be playing ball or something and I'd be practicing on Booster Green's guitar." McDowell's progress as a musician was seriously hindered by the fact that he didn't actually own his own guitar until he received one as a gift in 1941.
The first song McDowell ever learned was Tommy Johnson's "Big Fat Mama (With the Meat Shakin' on Your Bones)." "I learned it on one string," he told Pomposello, "then two, note by note. Man, I about worried that first string to death trying to learn that song." This method later became a major part of McDowell's technique. In the liner notes to This Ain't No Rock N' Roll, Welding described McDowell's sound as "one of the most inventive, gripping, sensitive and rhythmically incisive bottleneck styles to be heard on record. His command of the idiom was literally without parallel in the blues, for he had developed an approach which was both unique and wholly brilliant in design and execution. Playing in the open-chord tunings favored by country guitarists, McDowell supports his dark-hued, melancholy singing with rhythmic patterns of great tensile strength, subtlety and resilience."
It was in Mississippi where McDowell truly began to refine his sound, adapting Patton's style to his own. He played around a lot and met with many different bluesmen, incorporating all of their styles into his own. He also began to soak up the sounds of the Mississippi Delta blues, acquiring his nickname. In traditional blues, the lyric is everything, and it was particularly pleasing to McDowell to let his guitar do some of the talking. He would say, according to Pomposello, "When you hear me play, if you listen real close, you'll hear the guitar say the same thing I'm saying, too." Although "Mississippi Fred" did not originate the Delta blues, as Guitar Player put it, "his feel and field-holler voice were his and his alone."
In 1959 folklorist Alan Lomax traveled around the southern United States recording the music he heard in the fields. He was the first to capture Fred McDowell on tape, including a few of McDowell's songs on an Atlantic Records LP and thus introducing McDowell's sound to a huge audience. Suddenly, at age 55, the guitarist was lauded as a great "new" discovery in the blues world. When Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Productions heard the Atlantic record in 1964, he immediately contacted Lomax in order to find McDowell. Strachwitz traveled to Como, Mississippi, where McDowell lived with his wife, Annie Mae, and began a long friendship with them that included a great deal of recording. With each recording, and with every appearance at a major folk or blues festival, McDowell's status as a blues hero grew.
Although most of McDowell's early work was performed on acoustic guitars, he made blues history in Great Britain when he recorded an album there using an electric guitar. The Chicago blues was played on electric, but the Delta blues had always been played on acoustic. Reaction to his electric bottleneck was mixed, but McDowell was so tickled by the electric slide that he never went back to his acoustic guitar.
McDowell learned what he knew studying the Mississippi bluesmasters who came before him in the late 1920s and early 1930s: Charlie Patton, Son House, Big Joe Williams, and Robert Johnson. His own music became part of the folk blues revival of the 1960s, and it was McDowell and those like him who passed the sounds on to the next generation. Legendary rockers the Rolling Stones were impressed with McDowell's early recording of "You Gotta Move." Strongly influenced by his style, they recorded their own version of the track on their Sticky Fingers album. When McDowell received his first substantial royalties from the song, it was the most money he had ever seen.
Even more important to McDowell was the fact that his music had inspired and found new life in another generation of performers. His work had great bearing on the style of northwest blues guitarist and vocalist Mike Russo, and singer Phoebe Snow felt she learned from McDowell's entire musical approach. But McDowell was perhaps closest to blues guitarist and vocalist Bonnie Raitt and is said to have treated her like his own grandchild. Raitt opened for many of McDowell's final gigs and eventually recorded several of his songs. McDowell died of cancer in 1972.
by Joanna Rubiner
Mississippi Fred McDowell's Career
Worked on a farm and played guitar at local dances around Rossville, TN, 1918-26; farmed and hoboed as an itinerant musician, working house parties, fish fries, dances, picnics, and suppers all around Mississippi and throughout the Delta area, mid-1920s-30s; settled in Como, MS, as a farm laborer, occasionally working dances, picnics, and the like, 1940s-50s; cut first record, 1959; began recording and playing festivals and concerts in the United States and abroad, 1963-71.
- Selective Works
- On Arhoolie, except where noted Mississippi Delta Blues, 1990.
- (Contributor) Mississippi Delta Blues Jam in Memphis, Volume 1 (recorded 1969), 1993.
- Good Morning Little School Girl (recorded 1964-65), 1994.
- You Gotta Move (recorded 1964-65), 1994.
- Amazing Grace, Hightone, 1994.
- This Ain't No Rock N' Roll (recorded 1968-69), 1995.
- (Contributor) Mississippi Delta Blues: Blow My Blues Away, Volume 1.
- (Contributor) Shake 'Em on Down.
- Cadence, February 1989.
- Down Beat, December 1989; May 1995.
- Frets Magazine, April 1988.
- Guitar Player, September 1981; May 1990; June 1991; April 1994; October 1994.
- Jazz Journal International, April 1985.
- Nation, April 16, 1990.
- Playboy, December 1993.
- Additional information for this profile was taken from Arhoolie Productions liner notes to Mississippi Delta Blues Jam in Memphis, Volume 1, 1993; Good Morning Little School Girl, 1994; You Gotta Move, 1994; and This Ain't No Rock N' Roll, 1995.