'Mississippi' Fred McDowell:

Biographical information

I've included Fred McDowell on the AAVE page as an accessible example of old-fashioned Southern vernacular speech (see the transcription). As a well-known musician, his recordings are widely available, and his life has been more or less carefully documented. Here's some information I gathered on his background:

 

"Mississippi" Fred McDowell was born and grew up in Rossville, Tennessee (pop. 291), a small farming community just east of Memphis and just north of the Mississippi border. The "Mississippi" designation came later in life, after he moved down to Como, Mississippi (pop. 1,391), about 40 miles south of Memphis on the 51 Highway, in his late thirties. McDowell was born about 1904 or 1905, and worked most of his life as a farm laborer, mill worker, and tractor driver. He played music at country dances and juke joints, though as he says, "I wasn't making money from music... sometimes they'd pay me, and sometimes they wouldn't." In his late 50s he was 'discovered' and recorded by folklorists Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax, who wrote:

"Fred was surprised when I admired his music sufficiently to visit him for several evenings and record everything he knew. In true country fashion he kept telling me that he couldn't play nearly as well as other men he knew. In my estimation he is simply a modest man, for in him the great tradition of the blues runs pure and deep."

This estimation of McDowell's talent has been confirmed my many musicians and writers since, and he has been called "one of the two most important interpreters of the old country-style blues to have been newly discovered during the urban folk music 'arrival' of the [1960s]." After Alan Lomax recorded him, McDowell began playing full-time, composing new songs and refining and extending his materials, and performed at clubs, universities, the Newport Folk Festival and on European concert tours. He was a stunning master of the bottleneck guitar style, playing in open-chord country tunings. Ed Denson wrote, "Fred has a style which sounds quite modern, although it was unmistakably developed in the 1920s and '30s. It is much more like the electric 'down-home' sound of Muddy Waters or Elmore James than the older, more melodic style associated with Charlie Patton or other first-generation bluesmen." McDowell spoke about his own life in interviews [or, go to the transcription] :

"I couldn't tell you exactly the date I was born. I was born in Rossville, Tennessee... I was about 21 when I left Rossville. There I was plowing with a mule. My father was a farmer and I worked with him. We were working twelve acres, growing cotton, peas and corn. I went to Memphis from there. I just got tired of plowing. I went there to look around, and after I got there I started working the Buckeye Oil Mill, sacking corn. Yellow corn, oats, sweet peas, and all like that. They had a great big plant out there. I stayed there about three years, I think. Then I loafed around, stayed with different people, friends. I worked for the Dixon brothers hooking logs on the track.

[a dangerous lumberjacking job: cables, chains or tongs are hooked onto logs for dragging, skidding or loading -- PLP].

"Worked in Chickasaw stacking logs for barrels. Worked at the Illinois Central shop in Memphis building freight cars. All this time I was picking up guitar...

"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 close 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 way I got my first guitar-- Mr. Taylor, a white man from Texas, he gave me a guitar. I was working in a milk dairy in White Station, near Memphis. This was right before I'd moved to Mississippi. I wasn't making money from music. Just playing around for dances and like that...

"I learned a lot from one fellow, Raymond Payne, in Rossville. He was really good. Played regular style, not bottleneck. I got that bottleneck style from my uncle. He was an old man, the first person I ever saw play with that. He didn't play with a bottleneck, though. You know this big bone you get out of a steak? Well, he done let it dry and smoothed it off and it sounded just like that bottleneck. That's the first somebody I saw play like that. This was in Rossville. I was a little bitty boy when I heard him do that, and after I learned how to play I made me one and tried it too. Started off playing with a pocketknife. I just remembered him doing it. He didn't show me. Nothing. I never could hardly learn no music by nobody trying to show me. Like, I hear you play tonight. Well, next week sometime it would come to me... what you was playing. I'd get the sound of it in my head, then I'd do it my way from what I remembered...

"I made up a lot of the songs I sing. It's like you hear a record or something or other. Well, you pick out some words out of that record that you like. You sing that and add something else onto it. It's just like if you're going to pray, and mean it, things will be in your mind. As fast as you get one word out, something else will come in there. Songs should tell the truth... When I play-- if you pay attention, what I sing the guitar sings, too. And what the guitar say, I say."

[Information and quotes from album liner notes on Milestone MSP 93003, 'Long Way From Home: The Blues of Fred McDowell', produced by Pete Welding in November 1966, and from interview with Pete Welding in Blues Unlimited #24, July-August 1965.]

 

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