Mississippi Fred McDowell was an interesting man as an American hill country blues singer and guitar player. Born in Rossville, Tennessee to farming parents who both died while he was young, he soon learned to play the guitar by 14, but managed to only own one when he was 37 years old.
He played for tips at dances around Rossville, but moved to Memphis in 1926 seeking greener pastures. By 1928, he was in Mississippi picking cotton, finally settling in Como, Mississippi in the 1940s. Here, he worked as a full-time farmer until he was over 60 while continuing to play music on weekends at dances and picnics.
He was modest, and shy, never hugging the limelight but was a virtuoso of the bottleneck guitar. Roving folklore musicologist Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins were in North Mississippi in 1959 making field recordings of rural Blues songs as part of the Folk Revival movement. While recording Lonnie and Ed Young playing their fife and drum music one night, McDowell approached them carrying a guitar. The tracks they recorded on the porch over the next few evenings revealed a direct link back to the playing of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson.
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McDowell born in 1904 or 1906 had met Charley Patton as a young man. As a youth, when he went to parties, he studied the players and would pick a guitar and sing when they had finished. It helped that his uncle showed him some bottleneck technique using a polished steak bone as a slide.
McDowell married Annie-Mae, who was a great singer herself. After decades of playing for small local gatherings, McDowell’s stock started rising after the field recordings for Lomax enabling him to become a professional musician and recording artist in his own right. His LPs proved quite popular, performing at festivals and clubs all over the world.
He was a purveyor of the original Delta blues. Loved for his roughed-up vocals and slashing bottleneck style of guitar playing, McDowell knew he was the real deal, although he had never recorded in the ’20s or early ’30s, didn’t get “discovered” until 1959, and didn’t become a full-time professional musician until the mid-’60s.
That McDowell’s gift was shared with the world was largely thanks to Chris Strachwitz — folk-blues enthusiast and owner of the fledgling Arhoolie label who searched for and recorded him commercially.
“Two albums, Fred McDowell, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, were released on Arhoolie in the mid-’60s, and the shock waves were felt throughout the folk-blues community. Here was a bluesman with a repertoire of uncommon depth, putting it over with great emotional force, and to top it all off, he had seemingly slipped through the cracks of late-’20s/early-’30s field recordings.”
The success of the Arhoolie recordings suddenly found McDowell very much in demand on the folk and festival circuit, where his performances left many fans spellbound. Soon he had more listings in his résumé in a couple of years than he had in the previous three decades combined.
In 1965 he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, together with Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Roosevelt Sykes and others.
He was also well documented on film, with appearances in The Blues Maker (1968) and his own documentary Fred McDowell (1969). By the end of the decade, he was signed to do a one-off album for Capitol Records (I Do Not Play No Rock ‘N’ Roll).
Unfortunately, just when his star was shining brightest, McDowell was diagnosed with cancer while performing dates into 1971. He died at Baptist Hospital in Memphis on July 3, 1972 and was buried in the Hammond Hill M. B. Church cemetery north of Como. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.