“I’m about fifty-nine; I couldn’t tell you exactly the date I was born. I was born in Rossville, Tennessee. I was just a young man when I started playing guitar. In my teens, I was. I used to go to dances; I used to sing to the music whilst others was playing. When they’d quit I’d always grab the guitar, go to doing something with it. I was watching them pretty closely to see what they were doing. My older sister – I nearly forgot – played a little guitar, but she didn’t teach me anything. I didn’t get a guitar of mine until 1941. When I was learning, when I was young, I was playing other people’s guitars.” The above is part of an interview on his background that Fred McDowell gave to blues collector and recorder Pete Welding in 1965, which was reproduced in the British magazine “Blues Unlimited.”
McDowell spent his early years working on his father’s farm in Rossville, finally leaving it when he was twenty-one years of age because, as he told Welding, “I just got tired of plowing.” He went to Memphis and spent three years working in a mill, following this with a number of casual jobs. All the while he was keeping up with his guitar, playing as opportunities arose. When he moved to Mississippi in 1940 he continued to play for dances and social occasions, though, as often as not, he was not paid for his work, never regarding himself as a professional musician. He told Pete Welding that he learned the bottleneck style from an uncle, although the latter in fact used the bone of a steak, which he dried out and smoothed, instead of the more conventional bottleneck. At first McDowell followed the same method, later using a pocket knife before settling for a Haig bottleneck. It appears that he picked up a great deal of his repertoire from unknown singers he heard at dances and throughout the years his style remained astonishingly unaffected by later developments.
In 1959, Alan Lomax was undertaking an extensive tour of the Southern states to record material for a series of LPs that were issued on Atlantic under the title of “Southern Fold Heritage.” He heard about McDowell from some of his neighbors and recorded him in Como, Mississippi, five tracks being devoted to his singing and playing on the subsequent LPs. They aroused some interest at the time but nothing further was heard of McDowell until three years later when Chris Strachwitz found him in the course of one of his Southern recording tours. Strachwitz devoted a whole LP to him on his Arhoolie label. Since that date there has been a second Arhoolie LP and one for Pete Welding’s Testament label plus odd tracks made during the American Folk Blues Festival of 1965. The latter, which toured several European countries, must have been a somewhat unnerving experience for McDowell, though he had already played the occasional date in clubs and folk concerts, but a number of critics felt that he was the star of the show and were impressed by his obvious dedication.
The present LP was recorded by Alan Bates in Como, Mississippi, late in 1965, and certain technical difficulties were ably overcome. “I make my guitar say just what I say,” McDowell told one British critic and the first track, “Some Day Baby,” proves his point. There is some stunning bottleneck playing on this track and the voice and guitar are more in the nature of a duet than the standard vocal with accompaniment. “Milk Cow Blues” and “The Train I Ride” highlight the strongly rhythmic quality of McDowell’s guitar playing, while “Over The Hill” is a gospel performance by Fred’s wife, Annie McDowell, that is curiously moving despite the fact that her voice is a slight one. “Goin’ Down To The River” lasts almost eight minutes but McDowell sustains it well, while variety is provided by a fine, rhythmic bottleneck solo on “I Wished I Were In Heaven Sitting Down.” Big Bill Broonzy’s “Louise” is the one track in which the guitar part is somewhat subordinate to the vocal, though even less so here than with many blues artists.
McDowell’s performances have a certain introspective quality that is compelling. His repertoire is not a wide one and many of his numbers make use of stock blues verses, but his presentation, with lines tailing away and the strong interplay of voice and guitar, is a highly personal one rooted in what is now thought of as the Mississippi tradition. The intensity of his best work stems from his total involvement in his music, for his voice is not a strong one and he does not rely upon physical power in any sense, while his music is a summary of his life and experiences to date. This is music that owes nothing to artifice but simply makes its impact through the total honesty of the performer. Of all the blues singers of the older school who have been discovered or rediscovered in recent years, McDowell strikes me as the most impressive, and this LP affords ample proof of his stature.