Interview with Mississippi Fred McDowell

By Barry Foster, an undergraduate at Bowling Green University in 1971 in the Journal of Popular Culture 5:2 (1971).


During the current blues revival, there have been certain traditional bluesmen to rise to the forefront. Mississippi Fred McDowell is one of them. Fred is the innovator of the "slide" or "bottleneck" guitar, and has played and visited with such current superstars as Johnny Winter and The Rolling Stones. 

BF: How long have you been playing the blues? 

FM: Well, I'll tell you, off and on—I started when I was a boy about 14 years old. After I learned how a little bit, I quit, you unnerstand, because I wasn't interested in no guitar much no how. So I quit . . . my mother she asked me to quit playing because she wanted me to go to church, you unnerstand. So I quit playin, and when I got started back again I was just about grown, you see, and—it's about six years ago 'fore I got more interested in a guitar than I was then, you unnderstand, see, 'cause there have never been no-body down through my home—you sec my home is in—you see everbody calls me Mississippi Fred McDowell, but my home is in Tennessee. Rossford, Tennessee where I was born and raised. But after my mother passed, well I have a sister lives in Mississippi, you see, and she and I stay close together that's why Pm down there now, you unncrstand. I likes it okay, it's good. I like that better than I do my own home, now.

BF: How did you develop the "bottleneck guitar"? 

FM: How I come by that, I was a small boy—my uncle was a guitar player and he played with a beef-bone not a bottleneck —a little round bone come out of a steak. He filed it real smooth and he played with it on this finger (pointing to his pinkie), sec I play it with my ring finger and that's why I said if I ever learn to play the guitar that's what I'm going to get me, a bone. But I didn' get a bone, I started out learnin' how to play with a pocketknife. Well, you see you can't make a chord with a pocketknife—see, you got to hold it this way (between his ring and small finger). When you're playin' the guitar—see you ain't got no action with these fingers here at all (pointing to his first two fingers), you see. So I discovered that bottleneck, an' made it myself.

BF: What do you think of people who have modified the "bottle-neck" guitar style, say like Johnny Winter? 

FM: Well, I tell you, nothin' but it's good. See, Johnny Winter, me and him plays together a lot, and he really can use it and also J. B. Hutto, Muddy—but they all don' play with a bottleneck, they play it with a bar, you see. But it sounds good to me, I like all.music. I don' care who's playin' it, just like those words I put on "1 Don't Play No Rock'n' Roll," see a lot of people think just because I play blues that I don' like rock'n'- roll but it's a mistake. You see—that's just a good hit for me on my album, you understand, 'cause I like all music, I don' care who's playin' it. Whatever you play, you feel it and if it sound good to you, it sound good to me too, you understand. That's the way that goes.

BF: Then you like the electric things that BB King has been doing. 

FM: Sure, sure yeah. You see, 1 used to play acoustic all the time 'till about three years ago.

BF: Do you write most of the songs you do, or are they traditional blues handed down, or exactly what?

FM: 1 don't write any songs. I makes my own words—just a sound to my music, I don't write no songs.
 
BF: So once you've done them, they're gone. Like the things you did tonight we'll probably never hear again. 

FM: Who won' hear it again? Well, here, you know, when you play music, man—this is the way I play, I play what I feel. See, I sing these different words with feelin' to them 'cause I feel them myself because of this—see, you come up, probably you don' know what a hard time is, see I do. See, you get to thinkin' how you been used, you unnerstand, now that's where the blues come from. Now the blues, where it first started from, when I was comin' up as a boy they didn' call what we's singin' now the blues, you know what they call it? They call it the reel, well they change that name from the reel, to the blue, that's what that is. 

BF: Do you think that a lot of the feeling is gone out of music? 

FM: No, it's comin' back in. You take like four years ago, and I'm from Mississippi, see, I live about 40 miles on this side of Oxford, but I played at Ole Miss at the university there about every other month, and it's gettin' popular there. See, they don' care nothin"bout the rock'n'roll, they call me an' say we'll get you on such and such a night. They done fell in love with the blues, they changed from what they were. And they seem to enjoy it better. 

Copyright Gary Tennant
BF: Do you think the blues has had much of an effect on rock music? 

FM: Yeah, it's taken a big turn. That's correct. That's true. Because they're gonna pay more attention, and they're gonna listen more to it than they did when rock was first startin' out. Still, you're always gonna find somebody who likes rock-'n'roll. Because, you know why? Because its a fast piece, and it's a fast dancin' piece and you can do more things with it. All of it's good, hell, I like it all. BF: Do you think the volume of rock, in decibels, has hurt it at all? 

FM: Yeah, 'cause you see, last year, I was in Ann Arbor, I came from Toronto with John—I went up with him in the bus, an' come back in the car with him. Well that Sunday there's a rock festival, a blues festival over there where they give it the year before last. (At this point, Fred relates a story about a killing at the festival and expresses the feeling that this had a lot to do with the cancellation of another Ann Arbor Blues Festival) 

BF: Well there are going to be some blues festivals this summer somewhere aren't there? 

FM: But not there (Ann Arbor). I don' know, I would tell you yeah-I know we're going to be into soinethin', I don' know what the hell it is, that's week after next in Philadelphia, I don' know what that is. Then we're supposed to be in Wash-ington, D. C., I know that's a blues festival, goin' to hold it there in that hotel where they had it last year you unnerstand. BF: Since the last Ann Arbor Blues festival, a lot of the traditional blues men have passed on, do you see this as an end to tradi-tional blues, or will there be people to carry it on? 

FM: Yeah, I'll tell you, yeah because they likes it, they're just like me, and I don't think they're gonna change (talking about J. P. Hutto, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, etc.). 

BF: Do you see any difference in Chicago blues and urban blues? 

FM: Yeah, because I'll tell you, see, I play jus' a straight thing, but they get so many different beats, sorta halfway into rock and halfway into blues. An', you see, it's not their own tune, now you take Elmore James—everybody plays blues in Chi-cago, they got his lick in there, they got his run. Now they change the words, an' they change .the beat, but that's still his sound, you see. An' you can't find now, you can't find a one, —'cause I been with him, an' I've traveled with him in Germany and I've traveled with him everywhere, on the busses, and they have tried it and they've tried to play it but they can't do it. 'Cause they don't know how the guitar's tuned. BF: With your new album on Capitol, and Columbia's releases of old blues material, do you see a coming traditional blues re-vival? 

FM: On my album "1 Do Not Play No Rock'n'Roll," that cat that plays bass . . well that white boy, that's the first time lie ever saw me, and the first time I ever saw him, he's backin' me on that bass—and he's good. 'Cause he can play any kind of thing that you want to hear, and he knows exactly what beat to get, and what to play. 

BF: Did you know Bessie Smith, or did you ever hear her sing? 

FM: No, I heard her, but not in person. I ain't gonna tell no lies and say yeah, I know her—no I don' know her. 'Cause I was small when Bessie—See, Bessie was singin' with W. C. Handy an' them at that time you see, an' I wasn' nothin' but a little boy. But I can remember this, see, W. C. Handy had a home band, he had a few guitar players with him you unnerstand, that played with the band, and they used to run a train that they called "The Excursion," that was on the Fourth of July, that's for the white people, see, you'd have a picnic on the Fourth day of July where they'd get them bands, from Mem. phis, and they'd get that train to bring trainloads of people to Rossford, Tennessee—that's my home, and we'd slip down there stand around there and sit on the fence—you couldn't go over there. BF: How do you feel about people that have taken the blues and covered it with white artists and studio musicians?

FM: Well, some of them have been sold for a lot more money, but you take like last year, you take Johnny Winter, see Johnny has a good manager, and Johnny had stuff that some of the people, they'd really like it, you unnerstand. Well, he come in to a good pile of money. Well everybody at that festival, they didn' pay him much attention 'cause they didn' like what he did. Well hell, they was wrong. They were tellin' me, "You know who should have had that money? Y'all, you an' Muddy an' them, Of s'posed to have it." No, I didn' neither. If we shoulda had it, we woulda got it through by our manager And if people—like he made that hit, that was his hit, not out one you see. But they couldn't see it that way, they wouldn't have much to do with him. Me and him, we went aroun' an' got drunk—damn 'em, he had that money in his pocket. 

BF: Who are your favorite blues artists, that is, who has most in-fluenced your sound? 

FM: I like BB, I like Lightnin', I like the 'Wolf, I like all of them, really. 

BF: It must be nice to play a club where you`know that your audience really knows the blues. 

FM: Yeah! You know one thing? Ever since I've been here, they listenin', but a lot of time, you got to talk to people, and get them to unnerstan' what you doin'. Now I have been that-a-way, see, I'd get good applause, but they just didn't unnerstan' what the blues was all about until I stopped and talked to them. Tell that the words mean this, and to listen at the words and listen at the guitar, and every word that I said. Then I'd play one or two more pieces, you could tell the difference, they'd start gettin' with the music, 'cause they'd be gettin' to unnerstan' what you doin'. Now you hear me sing, that guitar will say every word I sing, see I learned how to play like that. I can't play a guitar without singin' to it. That's just my way you unnerstan', you see. I don't out-play nobody, and I don't try to out-play No-body, 'cause that's nothin' but shit, you sec. When you ask somebody to play with you, and run off and leave them, that just makes them feel bad. I wan' to ask you a question, do you think a white per-son can play the blues as well as a colored person? 

BF: No way. 

FM: You wrong, see, I had this person ask me in Seattle, he said Muddy said that a white person couldn't play the blues like a colored person, but if he can't play the blues like a colored person, what do you want with that harp player with him? That's all he's playin' is the blues, and he got him back there playin' with him. I'm going to tell you this, see, I've done traveled as much as Muddy, and I saw these two brothers, and Muddy or no damn body could have beat them playin' the blues to save your life. I don't give a damn where you come from. See, know music man, and there were two guitar players, and this other boy played this here thing that you lay across your lap. . . . 

BF: A dobro. 

FM: Yeah, boy, that son-of-a-gun would bust your heart with that there thing, those boys behind him with that guitar. Boy if you think they couldn't play the blues—boy, you wrong! tell you and Muddy both that. 

BF: At least I know I'm in good company when I'm wrong.

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