Mississippi Fred McDowell

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Fred McDowell
Mississippi Fred McDowell.jpg
McDowell in 1972
Background information
Born (1904-01-12)January 12, 1904
Rossville, Tennessee, United States
Died July 3, 1972(1972-07-03) (aged 68)
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Genres Hill country blues
Occupation(s) Musician, songwriter
Instruments Vocals, guitar
Years active 1926–1972
Labels Arhoolie, Testament, Oblivion, Rounder Records, Fat Possum, Mississippi Records
Associated acts R. L. Burnside, Wilber Sweatman, Spirits of Rhythm, Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones, Tom Pomposello,[1][2] Johnny Woods[3]

Fred McDowell (January 12, 1904 – July 3, 1972) known by his stage name; Mississippi Fred McDowell, was an American Hill country blues singer and guitar player.


McDowell was born in Rossville, Tennessee. His parents, who were farmers, died when McDowell was a youth. He started playing guitar at the age of 14 and played at dances around Rossville. Wanting a change from plowing fields, he moved to Memphis in 1926 where he started to work in the Buck-Eye feed mill where they processed cotton into oil and other products.[4] He also had a number of other jobs and played music for tips. Later in 1928 he moved south into Mississippi to pick cotton.[4] He finally settled in Como, Mississippi, about 40 miles south of Memphis, in 1940 or 1941 (or maybe the late 1950s), and worked steadily as a farmer, continuing to perform music at dances and picnics. Initially he played slide guitar using a pocket knife and then a slide made from a beef rib bone, later switching to a glass slide for its clearer sound. He played with the slide on his ring finger.[5]

While commonly lumped together with Delta Blues singers, McDowell actually may be considered the first north hill country blues artist to achieve widespread recognition for his work. The hill country – parallel to, but somewhat east of the Delta region – has a version of the blues somewhat closer in structure to its African roots. It often eschews the chord change for the hypnotic effect of the droning, single chord vamp. McDowell's records offer glimpses to the style's origins, in the form of little-recorded supporting acts such as string duo Bob and Miles Pratcher, guitarist Eli Green, fife player Napoleon Strickland, harmonicist Johnny Woods and the Hunter's Chapel Singers. McDowell's style (or at least its aesthetic) may be heard to have been carried on in the music of such hill country figures as Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, who in turn served as the original impetus behind creation of the Fat Possum record label out of Oxford, Mississippi in the 1990s.[6]

The 1950s brought a rising interest in blues music and folk music in the United States and McDowell was brought to wider public attention, beginning when he was discovered and recorded in 1959 by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins.[7] McDowell's records were popular, and he performed often at festivals and clubs.[8]

McDowell continued to perform blues in the North Mississippi blues style much as he had for decades, but he sometimes performed on electric guitar rather than acoustic guitar. While he famously declared "I do not play no rock and roll," McDowell was not averse to associating with many younger rock musicians: He coached Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar technique,[8] and was reportedly flattered by The Rolling Stones' rather straightforward, authentic version of his "You Gotta Move" on their 1971 Sticky Fingers album[citation needed]. 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.[9]

McDowell's 1969 Malaco Records album I Do Not Play No Rock 'N' Roll, recorded in Jackson, Mississippi, was his first featuring electric guitar. It features parts of an interview in which he discusses the origins of the blues and the nature of love. McDowell's final album,[10] Live in New York (Oblivion Records), was a concert performance from November 1971 at the Village Gaslight (aka The Gaslight Cafe), Greenwich Village, New York.

McDowell died of cancer in 1972, aged 68, and was buried at Hammond Hill Baptist Church, between Como and Senatobia, Mississippi. On August 6, 1993 a memorial was placed on his grave site by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. The ceremony was presided over by Dick Waterman, and the memorial with McDowell's portrait upon it was paid for by Bonnie Raitt. The memorial stone was a replacement for an inaccurate and damaged marker (McDowell's name was misspelled) and the original stone was subsequently donated by McDowell's family to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Peter Vidani. "The Oblivion Records blog (A very brief history of 'Mississippi Fred McDowell...)". Oblivionrecords.tumblr.com. Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  2. ^ Peter Vidani. "The Oblivion Records blog (A blues purist in the here and now.)". Oblivionrecords.tumblr.com. Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  3. ^ Peter Vidani. "The Oblivion Records blog (A very brief history of 'Johnny Woods >...)". Oblivionrecords.tumblr.com. Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  4. ^ a b 'Delta Blues' Back Sleeve Arhoolie F1021
  5. ^ "Mississippi Fred McDowell". Scribd.com. 2013-11-07. Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  6. ^ "Hill Country Blues". Msbluestrail.org. Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  7. ^ Collins, Shirley (2004). America Over the Water. S.A.F. pp. 134–6. ISBN 0-946719-91-8
  8. ^ a b Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues – From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton. pp. 142–143. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. 
  9. ^ Wirz, Stefan. "American Folk Blues Festival Discography". Wirz.de. Retrieved 2013-03-31. 
  10. ^ Peter Vidani. "The Oblivion Records blog". Oblivionrecords.tumblr.com. Retrieved 2015-10-05. 

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