Friday Night with Guitar George: Fred McDowell Part 2

“I do not play no rock and roll.”
–Fred McDowell

They called him Mississippi Fred, but Fred McDowell was born in Rossville, Tennessee; a small farming town just east of Memphis. Fred spent time on a tractor in the country and in a factory in the city before drifting down to the Delta in northwest Mississippi when he was in his thirties. Fred never had any formal music lessons, learning to play guitar mostly just by watching others play. His uncle showed him how to play slide guitar using a steak bone for a slide. For a while Fred used his pocket knife for a slide, then used a steak bone like his uncle, and eventually switched to the more traditional glass bottle neck. Continuing his full-time work as a farmer, Fred only played guitar part-time, performing at local dances and parties, for which he sometimes got paid, sometimes did not. After being “discovered” by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959, McDowell was finally able to record and perform professionally until shortly before his death in 1972.

Although Fred emphatically insisted that he would never play rock and roll, he was flattered when rock musicians recorded his material, and reportedly was impressed by the Rolling Stones’ very straight-forward, traditional cover of his song “You Gotta Move”, which they recorded during the 1969 sessions in Muscle Shoals, Alabama which also produced “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”. Fortunately, YouTube has several good videos of Fred performing. Tonight’s featured video is of special merit because it showcases not only Fred’s brilliant slide guitar work, but also his wonderful singing voice. True to Fred’s promise, it ain’t no rock and roll—it’s just really good blues.

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