Fred McDowell, a seminal figure in Mississippi hill country blues, was one of the most vibrant performers of the 1960s blues revival. McDowell (c. 1906-1972) was a sharecropper and local entertainer in 1959 when he made his first recordings at his home on a farm north of Como for noted folklorist Alan Lomax. The depth and originality of McDowell’s music brought him such worldwide acclaim that he was able to record and tour prolifically during his final years.
“Mississippi” Fred McDowell, as he was usually billed, was actually born and raised in Rossville, Tennessee. He never knew his birth date–January 12, 1904 is often cited, although census and Social Security documents point to 1906 or 1907. His music blended the sounds he heard from local guitarists in Tennessee with the pulsating juke joint grooves of the North Mississippi hills and the hard-edged blues he picked up during several years spent in the Delta. Spirituals were an important part of his repertoire, and one, “ You Got to Move,” recorded by McDowell in 1965, gained widespread fame when the Rolling Stones recorded it on their 1971 album Sticky Fingers.
McDowell, who learned to fret his guitar strings with a bottleneck or metal slide after seeing his father’s cousin play with a steak bone, honed his skills under the tutelage of longtime friend and neighbor Eli Green, who was said to possess magical powers. Green’s song “Write Me a Few Lines” became a McDowell signature piece and was later recorded by one of McDowell’s biggest admirers, Bonnie Raitt. McDowell was also so well known for the rhythmic tour-de-force “Shake ’Em On Down” that he earned the nickname “Shake ’Em.” His music laid the groundwork for generations of hill country musicians to come, most notably R. L. Burnside, who started out by playing McDowell’s guitar at a house party. Alan Lomax described McDowell as “a bluesman quite the equal of Son House and Muddy Waters, but, musically speaking, their granddaddy.”
The highly acclaimed albums that McDowell waxed during his belated recording career (1959-1971) proved that some of the greatest country blues music had gone undiscovered by the record companies that scoured the South for talent in the 1920s and ‘30s. McDowell found himself in demand at folk and blues clubs and festivals, yet kept a job pumping gas at the Stuckey’s candy store and service station on I-55 during his final years, even when he was at last able to support himself as a musician. Stuckey’s became his social hangout and his office, where he would receive phone calls from booking agents and record producers. In earlier years, McDowell held a variety of jobs, including picking cotton, driving a tractor, and working for an oil mill, a dairy, and a logging company. In 1940, when he applied for a Social Security card, he was employed by the Hotel Peabody in Memphis. Fifty-one years later the Peabody was the site of McDowell’s posthumous induction into the Blues Hall of Fame. McDowell died at Baptist Hospital in Memphis on July 3, 1972. He is buried in the Hammond Hill M. B. Church cemetery north of Como.
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