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An Introduction to Mississippi Fred McDowell

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Album Review

If any of the commercial labels like OKeh or Paramount had discovered Mississippi Fred McDowell back in the 1920s or 1930s when they were busy putting out 78s by the likes of Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Skip James, he very well might be thought of today as the absolute best of the old Delta and country blues players. His slide tone was as pure or purer than any of them, and they were indeed his contemporaries (Robert Johnson was actually seven years his junior), but McDowell had to wait for Alan Lomax to visit Como, MS, in 1959 to be discovered. Over the next decade McDowell distinguished himself as a master of the country blues (and country gospel) medium, delivering performance after performance of emotionally balanced versions of the old Delta catalog and turning in breathtaking slide guitar work on both acoustic and electric guitar. This fine collection includes scattered live performances by McDowell recorded between 1963 and 1969, but even though the set is somewhat patched together, it still feels like a coherent whole, and a pretty accurate portrait of this amazing blues player clearly emerges from it all. McDowell's signature "You Got to Move" is here (listed as "You Gotta Move"), as well as a thundering version of Bukka White's "Shake 'Em on Down" that is every bit as exciting as White's original, a sprightly take on "I Asked for Whiskey, She Gave Me Gasoline," and a majestic acoustic version of "Going Down the River." A subtly balanced singer, McDowell is nothing short of elegant when he pulls out the slide, and no country blues player has ever done it better. It's virtually impossible to find a bad Fred McDowell album, and this patchwork affair is no exception. His natural grace and elegance shine through no matter how he is packaged.


Born: 12 January 1904 in Rossville, TN

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s

When Mississippi Fred McDowell proclaimed on one of his last albums, "I do not play no rock & roll," it was less a boast by an aging musician swept aside by the big beat than a mere statement of fact. As a stylist and purveyor of the original Delta blues, he was superb, equal parts Charley Patton and Son House coming to the fore through his roughed-up vocals and slashing bottleneck style of guitar playing. McDowell knew he was the real deal, and while others were diluting and updating their sound...
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