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The Turnaround - Mississippi Fred McDowell

This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special.

Last time, we testified with the world’s most famous zombie, Jesus of Nazareth.

This week, we’ll head back home to northern Mississippi and groove with the other Mississippi bluesmen of the hill country and the sire of the genre, Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Here’s what we know: Fred McDowell was born on January 12, 1906 in Rossville, Tennessee. His parents, who were farmers died when he was still young. At 14 years old, he learned to play the slide guitar with a bone from a steer. In 1926, he wandered around the Memphis area, keeping a number of odd jobs and playing for tips. In the ‘40s or ‘50s (it’s notoriously hard to pin down dates for many of these early bluesmen), he settled down in Como, Mississippi, farming for a living and playing at dances and picnics on the weekends.

Musicologist Alan Lomax came to town in 1959 and recorded McDowell. This sparked Chris Strachwitz, owner of Arhoolie Records, to cut two albums with McDowell in the mid-1960’s. Through the latter half of the ‘60s, Mississippi Fred McDowell recorded another album for Capitol Records  and toured the US and Europe as part of the American folk and blues music revival, playing festivals like the Newport Folk Festival and the American Folk Blues Festival.

Mississippi Fred McDowell died of cancer in 1972 at the age of 66. He was laid to rest at the Hammond Hill Baptist Church in Como, MS.

Fred McDowell was the first of the hill country bluesmen to gain any kind of notoriety, influencing the Rolling Stones and mentoring a young Bonnie Raitt. The hill country school of blues music is a direct successor to West African drumming and the old fife and drum bands of the 19th Century. Chord changes are rare, with most musicians opting to vamp over a single chord. The old guard of fife-and-drum musicians passed on the tradition of making the drums “talk it”, in which the rhythm matches old phrases and the vocals of fife-and-drum tunes. This localized, isolated style of music that came to shape many popular acts of the last 50 years would have stayed exactly that if Fred McDowell had not met Alan Lomax. For bringing this hypnotic, grooving, driving style of music out in the open, we are eternally indebted to Mississippi Fred McDowell.

The only drink I can think of that may come close to the hypnotic rhythms of Fred Mcdowell is the mythical green fairy, absinthe. Pernod was the favorite of Van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway, Toulouse-Lautrec, Proust, and myself. Drip ice cold water over a sugar cube into it to produce the famed louche effect. The Bohemian method, which involves setting the sugar on fire is en vogue now, but the legends of the Belle Époque would think you’re the one who’d lost his mind.

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