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The Hill Country Blues Began With Mississippi Fred McDowell

Fred Seibert 1972
Wikimedia Commons

The North Mississippi Hill Country is only a couple dozen miles from the part of the state known as the Mississippi Delta. Each has given birth to its own distinctive style of the Blues.

If Robert Johnson personifies the Delta, then his Hill Country counterpart must be Mississippi Fred McDowell.

McDowell played with a slide, at first a pocket knife, then a steak bone and finally a glass slide that gave a clearer sound. McDowell used his slide on his ring finger, unlike me and many others who prefer the pinky. The style he developed was in many ways closer to its African roots than Delta was.

Many of his pieces eschewed chord changes for a hypnotic droning single chord effect.

Among the players who followed in McDowell’s footsteps were Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. A record label called Fat Possum sprang up in Oxford, Mississippi, to specialize in the new style.

Like many of the early to mid-20th Century Blues artists, Fred McDowell was first recorded and brought to a wider audience by folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Those recordings, which began in 1959, led Fred to a wider world of clubs and festivals, ultimately touring Europe with many of his peers in 1865 as The American Folk Blues Festival.

As his popularity grew he started to use an electric guitar more and more and my personal opinion is that it detracted from his sound. The electric gave a thin reedy sound with his single note slide style. Never the less he had great influence on a large number of younger musicians including Rock musicians like The Rolling Stones, who recorded McDowell’s “You Gotta Move” on their album Sticky Fingers.

It amuses me that rockers liked him since he famously once said "I do not play no rock and roll." McDowell disdained the modifications of style many Blues artists adopted in the 1960s to capitalize on the popularity of Rock music.

What he did play appealed certainly to Bonnie Raitt, whom he coached on slide guitar technique. Years after McDowell’s death from cancer in 1972, Raitt was among those who eulogized Mississippi Fred McDowell at the 1993 memorial presided over by Dick Waterman. At that ceremony a new gravestone was laid at his burial site at the Hammond Hill Baptist Church, between Como and Senatobia, Mississippi.

In 2002, Telarc Blues released a tribute album called Preachin’ the Blues: The Music of Mississippi Fred McDowell. It features artists like Charlie Musselwhite, Tab Benoit, Sue Foley and Kenny Neal. This week on The Nine O’clock Blues we’ll sample that album and hear from Fred himself doing his classic "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl."

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