Mississippi Fred McDowell is widely viewed by blues aficionados as the most talented artist of his generation to be “discovered” during the blues revival of the late 1950s and 1960s. Despite his nickname, McDowell was a native of Tennessee, born in Rossville on 12 January 1904. He began playing guitar as a teenager and recalled that his main influences in Rossville were Raymond Payne, a native of Mount Pleasant, Mississippi, who taught McDowell to play in the open G or “Spanish” tuning, and an uncle who played guitar with a slide made from a dried steak bone. McDowell subsequently developed his own distinctive and influential slide technique using a pocketknife.
In Rossville, McDowell worked on his father’s small farm and performed at Saturday night fish fries and country dances. At around age twenty-one he moved to Memphis, where his jobs included building rail cars, stacking logs, and working at an oil mill and a dairy. McDowell traveled around Mississippi in the late 1920s, learning “Pea Vine Special” and other songs directly from blues pioneer Charley Patton while visiting the Cleveland area. McDowell moved to Como around 1940 and performed widely around the region until his music reached a broader audience after he was recoreded by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. McDowell features prominently on a four-volume set of Lomax’s field recordings, Sounds of the South (1960).
McDowell began performing on the festival and coffeehouse circuits, often receiving equal billing with other rediscovered blues artists who had been documented during the heyday of country blues recording in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Managed by Dick Waterman, McDowell appeared at many prominent venues, including the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. The following year he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival tour.
Throughout the 1960s McDowell recorded widely in a variety of contexts. Albums on the Arhoolie and Testament labels feature McDowell performing with his wife, Annie Mae. Another Testament LP, Amazing Grace, features religious songs with McDowell accompanied by a group from his church, the Hunter’s Chapel Singers. Field recordings by George Mitchell feature McDowell with harmonica player Johnny Woods, and on the 1968 LP Levee Camp Blues, producer Pete Welding captured songs McDowell performed in his youth. One of the most popular of McDowell’s many recordings was I Do Not Play No Rock and Roll (1969). The album, recorded at the Malaco Records studio in Jackson and issued by Capitol Records, featured McDowell on electric guitar with a rhythm section and extended monologues on various topics.
McDowell’s slide guitar playing had already influenced young white artists, most notably Bonnie Raitt, and in 1971 the Rolling Stones covered McDowell’s version of the gospel standard “You’ve Got to Move” on Sticky Fingers. In the 1990s and 2000s his North Mississippi Hill Country blues style was popularized by his student R. L. Burnside and younger interpreters including the North Mississippi Allstars.
McDowell died of cancer in Memphis on 3 July 1972.
- Mississippi Fred McDowell, interview by Pete Welding, Blues Unlimited (July–August 1965)
- Tom Pomposello, Mississippi Fred McDowell (1995), liner notes
- Pete Welding, Levee Camp Blues (1998), liner notes
- Joe York and Scott Barretta, Shake ’em on Down (2016)