Muddy Waters declared that the blues got a baby that was named Rock & Roll. Mississippi Fred McDowell proclaimed that he didn’t play no rock & roll, and even named one of his albums after this firm statement. The statement referred in the first place to the true respect that Fred McDowell had for the original, pure blues. While others changed their style of music to the continuing taste of the public, Fred McDowell never changed a iota of his style. Not that he didn’t like Rock & Roll : in fact he was quite pride that the Rolling Stones covered his song ‘You gotta move’ on their Sticky Fingers album in 1971 and made a smashing hit out of it. Bonnie Raitt who learned the slide guitar tricks from Fred McDowell paid tribute to him in her repertoire and paid for the picture that has been put on his memorial stone.
Unlike the other discoveries of the blues revival in the sixties, there is no history of Fred McDowell recorded on 78ies. In fact, the record companies that roamed the south in the twenties for talent didn’t notice the man. It was only in 1959 that Alan Lomax visited him in on his farm to have his first songs recorded, for pure illustrative purposes, not for any commercial objectives. Fred McDowell was clearly puzzled by the fact why some white man would ever be interested in his music and kept coming back evening after evening to have his songs put on tape.
Fred McDowell is also different in other aspects from the other delta musicians. Though he carried the nickname ‘Mississippi’, he was born in Tennessee and lived for the most part of his live in Memphis. He is in fact one of the first of the Northern Mississippi blues musicians to gain recognition. His style goes back to the 20ties and mixes old country delta with spirituals, and is said to lean very closely to the haunting African music. Yet, though he remained always faithful to this original style, he had no problems in the sixties to gain a huge popularity among both the American and European festival public.
He was born on a farm in the beginning of the 20th century (there is no confirmed year of birth: somewhere between 1904 – 1907). His parents died young and he was quickly left with no other options than have the life of a hobo, rambling, playing some music in the week ends to complement his earnings from hard backbreaking work on farms and the early cotton industry.
Music was not his first interest: he has always kept his working clothes, evening in the sixties when his records started to sell well. He only got his first own guitar in 1941 (he was then in his thirties) and had been playing until then on the guitar of others. He learned the ‘metier’ from his uncle, and curiously he used a rib steak’s bone as a slide, replacing it only later with the neck of a medicine bottle (very commonly used then for playing slide guitar).
His late musical career ended too soon. He was diagnosed with cancer and died on July 3rd 1972.