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Nine O'clock Blues: Mississippi Fred McDowell

Black and white portrait, Mississippi Fred McDowell in 1972
Fred Seibert 1972
Wikimedia Commons
Black and white portrait, Mississippi Fred McDowell in 1972

Fred McDowell was born in Rossville, Tennessee, in 1904. Which brings up the question: “Why was he known as Mississippi Fred McDowell”?

McDowell’s parent’s died when he was young. He took up the guitar at age 14 and supported himself playing dances around Rossville and also by plowing fields. Like a very young B. B. King, Fred hated plowing behind a stinking mule, so he moved to Memphis in 1926 to work in the Buckeye Feed Mill and play music for tips. After time spent at others jobs, he moved to Mississippi in 1928 to pick cotton. This is part of the reason for McDowell’s nickname.

A bigger reason was the influence that the state had on his music and his influence on the music of the state. The years in Mississippi truly did shape his sound and while he has been bunched with the Mississippi delta blues school, he really should be considered the first of the true North Mississippi hills bluesmen. His raw sound, distinctive slide guitar, and gruff voice set the style for many who followed, from R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough to the North Mississippi All-Stars of today. He first used a pocket knife as a guitar slide, but he is probably best known for using a beef rib bone for a slide.

McDowell passed away of cancer in 1972 having been a significant influence on many blues artists right up until his last days. Blues historian Dick Waterman presided over Fred’s funeral and Bonnie Raitt paid for the memorial with McDowell’s portrait on it. Late in his life Fred McDowell said “I don’t play no rock and roll, I like to play the straight and natch’l blues.” That’s why I, like many others, love his music.

We’ll hear from Mississippi Fred McDowell this Saturday on The Nine O’clock Blues. Also on the show will be a set of music from Eddie Turner, a headliner at this year’s Greeley Blues Jam coming June 9th, and comments from Eddie about his musical influences and how he came to take an extended hiatus from music as a realtor. Tune in Saturday for The Nine O’clock Blues on KUNC.

Editor's Note: Updated 5/20/2012 with the audio of Marc's interview with Eddie Turner. This interview originally aired on 5/19/2012 during the Nine O'clock Blues.

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