Born: January 12, 1904 in Rossville TN
Died: July 3, 1972 in Memphis TN
"Mississippi" Fred McDowell was a singularly unique blues artist. Living in relative obscurity for most of his life, a decade in the spotlight turned McDowell's immense talents into a brightly-burning solar flare. Influenced by Mississippi Delta bluesmen like Charley Patton and Son House, McDowell developed his own distinctive style that was heavier on percussive elements and African rhythms than traditional Delta blues. McDowell's earthy performances would help define the North Mississippi Hill Country blues sound, strongly influencing later artists like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.
Street Corner Minstrel
Born in rural Tennessee in the early part of the twentieth century, McDowell started playing slide guitar at the tender age of fourteen. His parents died while he was still quite young, and after their deaths, McDowell began to wander, playing for tips in the streets of Memphis while still a teen. He eventually tired of rambling, and settled down to a life of farming in Como, Mississippi, performing at fish fries and house parties on the weekends.
It was in Como that folk music archivist Alan Lomax found McDowell some thirty years later, shepherding the reluctant bluesman into the studio in 1959 to record sides for Atlantic Records' American Folk Music series. Although the recordings provided McDowell status with folk music fans, they did little to change his fortunes - he continued to farm, and played in front of the Stuckey's candy store in Como for tips when the mood hit him.
The "Discovery" Of Mississippi Fred McDowell
McDowell's so-called "discovery" set the folk and blues community on their collective ears, as Lomax had found an authentic Delta bluesman who had never been captured on tape before. Unlike many of the Mississippi bluesmen in the 1920s and '30s, McDowell's ambitions never led him to seek out the traveling "record men" that haunted the Mississippi cotton fields and backwoods, so no recorded legacy existed for modern listeners to familiarize themselves with McDowell's considerable talents.
Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz was one of those people amazed by McDowell's music, and the young producer promptly sought out the humble McDowell in Mississippi. Arhoolie recorded and released two excellent volumes of McDowell's homespun country blues during the mid-1960s, Fred McDowell, Vol. 1 and Fred McDowell, Vol. 2, both of which subsequently made the artist a popular draw on the festival circuit throughout the decade, until his death from cancer in 1972.
I Do Not Play No Rock 'n' Roll
McDowell hung onto his acoustic roots until the recording of I Do Not Play No Rock 'n' Roll for Capitol Records in 1969, when he finally picked up an electric guitar. During the decade, McDowell delivered crowd-pleasing performances at the Newport Folk Festival and the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe. McDowell's talents were also well documented on film, the country bluesman appearing in 1968's The Blues Maker, his own 1969 documentary titled Fred McDowell, and 1970's Roots of American Music: Country and Urban Music.
McDowell's music proved to have an impact on both folk musicians and young rockers alike during the late-1960s, and well into the '70s. Before his death, McDowell gave singer Bonnie Raitt lessons in slide guitar, and in turn Raitt has recorded several McDowell songs through the years. The Rolling Stones immortalized the bluesman with their smoldering cover of McDowell's "You Gotta Move" on their landmark 1971 album Sticky Fingers, and McDowell's songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Dan Bern, the North Mississippi Allstars and Watermelon Slim, among others.
Recommended Albums:Arhoolie's The Best Of Mississippi Fred McDowell features 18 brilliant performances from the bluesman's first two albums for the label, circa 1964 to 1969, while McDowell's I Do Not Play No Rock & Roll displays his prowess at melding traditional Delta blues with a contemporary electric sound (the CD reissue includes ten additional tracks).