Fred McDowell lived in Tennessee until he was nearly forty. But as proof that a man can accomplish a lot after his thirtieth birthday, McDowell moved to Mississippi, played the hell out of a blues slide guitar, and attracted the art form's most famous (some say notorious) talent scout to his front door.
Until then, Fred McDowell played guitar only for himself and his friends. He played old style blues. Delta blues. Mississippi blues. When Alan Lomax came back through the deep south in 1959 looking for bluesmen that other archivists had overlooked in previous visits, he was astonished to find Mississippi Fred McDowell living in Como and pumping gas.
McDowell had undeniable musical talent, but unlike decades worth of other delta blues musicians, McDowell stayed on the farm and did not drive north on Highway 61 to make records. At least not until Lomax coaxed him into a recording studio. Fred continued farming and playing for tips until Chris Strachwitz went looking for Fred in 1964 and recorded "Fred McDowell. Volume 1 and Volume 2" on Arhoolie. Things really took off after those recordings and McDowell became a sensation in the blues/folk revival of the early 1960's.
Music author Ted Gioia writes about McDowell in "Delta Blues", (see earlier post here) his recent history of the music:
"He moved to Memphis around the time he turned twenty-one, and finally settled in Como, Mississippi, in the early 1940's. But his music was infused with the free-spirited intensity of the Delta tradition, even if his geographical connections to that heart of the region are weak ones at best, and his name is usually one of the first mentioned by blues fans when the conversation turns to the subject of their favorite Delta guitarists."
McDowell's famous fans include Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt. McDowell gave a young Raitt Delta slide guitar lessons. The Stones covered McDowell's "You Gotta Move" on their "Sticky Fingers" album.
On Thursday afternoon, Bonnie Raitt will return to Como to honor her friend and mentor as the state gives McDowell a plaque on the Mississippi Blues Trail.(read Jackson Clarion Ledger story here)
Rev. John Wilkins, Alex Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, Hubert Sumlin photo by Melanie Young
McDowell's musical success came late in life. He toured frequently but always came back home to Mississippi. Gioia writes about McDowell's final days:
"McDowell stopped touring in November of 1971, when stomach pains forced him to cancel his performances and seek medical treatment. Although he told many people that he suffered from an ulcer, the real diagnosis was stomach cancer, and despite surgery, doctors were unable to halt it's spread. He died on July 3, 1972 at the Baptist Hospital, and was buried -- not on Highway 61 -- but at the Hammond Hill Baptist Church, between Como and Senatobia, Mississippi. He was reportedly laid to rest wearing a silver lame' suit, given to him by the Rolling Stones. But the adulation fo the famous did little to prevent the guitarist's name being misspelled (McDewell) on the simple gravestone, an error that persisted many years before steps were taken to erect a more respectable tribute to one of Mississippi's greatest musical talents. On this new memorial, we find again that a lyric -- drawn from McDowell's best known composition -- served as a fitting epitaph.
You may be high,
You may be low.
You may be rich, child,
You may be poor.
But when the Lord gets ready,
You got to move.
Click to hear "You Gotta Move."