Thursday, March 1, 2018

Fred McDowell: The Alan Lomax Recordings

Track List

1, "Shake 'Em on Down"
2, "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl"
3, "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning"
4. "Fred McDowell's Blues"
5, "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Jesus"
6, "Drop Down Mama"
7, "Going Down to the River"
8, "Wished I Was in Heaven Sitting Down"
9, "When the Train Comes Along"
10, "When You Get Home Please Write Me a Few of Your Lines"
11, "Worried Mind Blues"
12, "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning"

In 1959, when he traveled through the American South on his "Southern Journey" field-recording trip, Alan Lomax made no plans to visit the Mississippi Delta. He had spent considerable time there some years earlier, in 1941 and 1942, when he and a team of researchers from Nashville's Fisk University had undertaken an extensive sociological study of Coahoma County in the heart of the Delta, with Lomax directing the musical investigations on behalf of the Library of Congress. That had resulted in the first recordings of Muddy Waters and Honeyboy Edwards; a trip to Robert Johnson's mother's house brought the news that "Little Robert" was dead, but Lomax was able to meet Johnson's mentor, Son House, who made for Alan his first recordings since House's slender pre-war output for the Paramount label. It was a hugely successful expedition to what Alan later called "the land where the blues began." But signs of a shifting in taste, among players and listeners alike, were evident even then: records of jump blues and big-city jazz beginning to fill up the "Seebird" (Seeburg) jukeboxes; talk of migration north to Chicago among the more talented of the Delta musicians, Muddy Waters foremost among them; and the increasing electrification of the combos that stayed behind to play in the small-town clubs and country jukes.

It was during the Coahoma County study that Lomax first visited the Mississippi Hill Country, the uplands to the east and northeast of the Delta. While doing research in Clarksdale, Alan had met a blind street singer and harp-blower named Turner Junior Johnson, who advised him to seek out Blind Sid Hemphill, the musical patriarch of the Hill Country. Lomax found Sid at his home in Senatobia, Tate County, and went on to record from him and his band some of the old-time black country dance music played on banjos, fiddles, fifes, drums, and quills that had survived in the hills, away from the social and economic changes roiling the Delta, and relatively isolated from the urbanized black music filling the airwaves and the jukeboxes.

Nearly twenty years later, in 1959, Lomax returned to the Hill Country instead of the Delta, hoping to find some of the raggy old dance tunes still holding on. He wasn't optimistic, worrying that he'd find, as he had on many other occasions, "that the best people had passed away or withered and their communities had gone to pieces." But not only were Hemphill and his friends and family still going strong in Tate County, Lomax discovered in neighboring Panola the string duet of the elderly Pratcher brothers, with their repertoire born of the minstrel and medicine-show eras, as well as the fife-and-drum music of the Youngs, Ed and his brother Lonnie. What he didn't expect to find, however, came by Lonnie's porch one evening: a diminutive farmer in overalls, carrying a guitar. He was Lonnie Young's neighbor, and had just finished his day picking cotton. His name was Fred McDowell. Alan's travelling partner and assistant, the English folksinger Shirley Collins, recounts that at first they resented the younger man's intrusion, but when Fred started to play, they realized they were in the presence of a master musician.

"Alan Lomax recorded me for the first time. I remember he was at the Pratcher brothers' house doing some recording, and somebody sent for me and said I should bring my guitar along. I did come by and played a little for Lomax, and he asked could he come to my house on Saturday night to record, and I said sure. So come that Saturday night, the house is full of people come to hear me recording and wanting to record, too. But right away Lomax said, 'I'm not interested in nobody but Fred.'" (Quoted in Bruce Cook, "Listen to the Blues", 1973.)

In the '20s and '30s, A&R men from commercial record companies scoured the southern states in search of talent for their "race" and "hillbilly" catalogs. They set up temporary studios in hotels, warehouses, and vacant storefronts and took out advertisements in local papers inviting people to come out, audition, and maybe even make a record. This turned up hundreds of artists who might well have otherwise remained unknown, but Fred McDowell was not among them. At the time Fred was in his teens and had just begun playing guitar, picking out the notes one string at a time on borrowed instruments, to songs he heard locally and on records by artists like Tommy Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Alan Lomax, too, had missed Fred, during his earlier trip through Panola and Tate counties in 1941, right about the time McDowell moved down from Memphis. He had yet to appear on the local picnic circuit; Hill Country tastes were still largely tuned to the sound of the Hemphill string band. Besides, although Fred had been playing weekend parties throughout the Memphis countryside for a decade or more, it was his move to Mississippi and his exposure to a new community of gifted musicians that expedited his musical development. Nearly twenty years later, however, a talent as big Fred's in a community as small as Como could not stay buried for long. It was inevitable that the two strangers making their way around town with a 26-pound, two-track reel-to-reel tape machine and talking of making records would run into it.

Fred McDowell was born around 1905 in Rossville, Tennessee, just a few miles north of the Mississippi border and another fifty from Como. From an early age he farmed cotton, peas, and corn with his family. Music was all around him. In Rossville, he remembered, "there wasn't hardly any seen who couldn't play guitar." Two of the better players he recalled were Raymond Payne and Vandy McKenna, neither of whom ever recorded. Fred watched them and picked up what he could. The first song he learned to play was "Big Fat Mama Blues" ("Big fat mama with the meat shakin' on your bones") from a 1928 record by Mississippi blues-man Tommy Johnson. "I learned it on one string, then two, note by note," Fred explained to a student years later. "Man, I about worried that first string to death trying to play that song." By his own account, Fred was a disciplined autodidact, which no doubt explains why his sound was so in-tensely individual.

"I never could hardly learn no music by somebody 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."

Fred's uncle Gene Shields played slide guitar with a filed-down piece of rib bone from a cow. "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 pocket knife." Eventually, he would settle on a glass bottleneck (preferably from a Gordon's Gin bottle), which provided the most clarity and volume.

McDowell moved west from Rossville to Memphis in 1926 and took a series of labor jobs beginning at the Buckeye Oil Mill. He had begun experimenting with the slide guitar style that he had seen his uncle playing, and that he would eventually make uniquely his own. Two years later, while working in Mississippi, he heard Charley Patton at a juke joint in Cleveland, and set to adapting some of his songs. Weekends found him sitting in at Saturday night parties, fish fries, and country picnics where the music was all about working for six days and shaking it for two. Yet he did not own his own guitar until 1940, about the time that he moved to Mississippi.

In the Hill Country, Fred joined his sister, Fanny Davis, who had relocated to Como after their mother died in Rossville. There he met his wife, Annie Mae, a Como native. Soon he was traveling throughout the region for work, which brought with it exposure to a variety of music. Sid Hemphill, the Pratcher brothers, Ed and Lonnie Young all playing something quite other than blues grounded his musical community around Como and Senatobia, while a blues guitar player and singer named Eli Green emerged as a valued teacher and frequent traveling companion throughout the Delta. "When You Get Home Write Me a Few of Your Lines" (Side B, Track 4) is a song Fred learned from Green, and one of the most impressive in his repertoire.

In addition to the old-time country dance music made by the Pratchers, the Youngs, and Blind Sid, the Hill Country was and continues to be fertile ground for African American congregational music. Singers like Viola James, James Shorter, Fred's sister Fanny, and his wife, Annie Mae, were all highly regarded performers in churches like Hunter's Chapel in Como, Independence Church in Tyro, Free Springs Methodist in Harmontown, and Greater Harvest Missionary Baptist in Senatobia. Always catholic in his repertoire, McDowell was as adept performing or accompanying sacred material as he was blues as he told a Sing Out! interviewer in 1969, "I play most anything I hear anybody else sing." Fred showed no evidence of internal discord over combining the sacred and the profane in his repertoire, a struggle that famously tormented his fellow Mississippian Son House, Here McDowell seamlessly follows his sister's plaintive rendition of "When the Train Comes Along" with a hot-blooded "When You Get Home." A 1964 LP of Fred's, entitled (speciously) "My Home Is in the Delta," devotes its first side to blues and its second side to spirituals and hymns sung with Annie Mae, among them "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" and "Amazing Grace."

The goal of Lomax's "Southern Journey" field recording trip of 1959 and 1960 was to demonstrate the diversity of vernacular expression still thriving in the American South, from the old-time banjo breakdowns of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the ring shouts of the Georgia Sea Islands. In the Hill Country, the spectrum extended from the picnic proto-blues of the Pratchers, representative of an older, fading collective tradition, to the music made by Fred McDowell, an integration of various traditional, vernacular, and popular influences into an artistry all his own. Some of the prison singers Lomax met at Parchman Farm had similarly synthetic repertoires, as did country gospel songwriter and arranger E.C. Ball of Rugby, Virginia, and Arkansas cotton-country bluesman Forrest City Joe, But Fred embodied this synthesis most succinctly, and his interpretative and compositional abilities only deepened during his era of international success.

The Atlantic and Prestige releases of the "Southern Journey" material brought McDowell's music to an increasingly blues-hungry public turned on by the efforts of impresarios like John Hammond and the Newport Folk Festival. The versatility and depth of Fred's repertoire made him one of the most popular blues-men of the era. He quickly and nimbly adopted the electric guitar, though not at the expense of his distinctive chops, and he was sensitive to differences in audiences' tastes. (Before a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1964, he wrote Arhoolie Records' Chris Strachwitz, asking, "Should I bring an electric guitar or a plain one?") A few years later, he explained in "Sing Out!," "I'm using the electric guitar for the sound: it sounds louder, and then it plays easier, too. But my style's the same."

Influencing as it did McDowell's landsmen and musical heirs R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, that style put the blues of the Mississippi Hill Country on the map, counter-poising the heavily chorded, song-based Delta blues with a droning, "groove"-based approach that has often been compared to the music of West African griots. Alan Lomax wrote in 1993 that Fred was "quite the equal of Son House and Muddy Waters but, musically speaking, their granddaddy."

"I look at it this way," Fred told "Sing Out!," "If you've got a gift, you do that, you don't know what may turn up in your favor." It was a gift that sent him around the world to perform, and it was represented on more than a dozen al-bums between 1960 and 1972, when McDowell died in Memphis. A year earlier the Rolling Stones had covered his "You Got to Move" on their Sticky Fingers album. The Stones "made much of him," Lomax later remarked. They "wined and dined him, and bought him a silver-lame suit, which he wore home to Como and was buried in, for he died soon after, much reduced by the life that fame and fortune had too late introduced him to."

But at least Fred McDowell had received the introduction, beginning that early fall evening on Lonnie Young's porch, when, hearing his recordings played back to him, "He stomped up and down on the porch, whooping and laughing and hugging his wife," as Lomax remembered. "He knew he had been heard and his fortune had been made." Fred's sister Fanny patted Alan. "Lord have mercy," she exclaimed. "Lord have mercy!"

Track List
1,   "Shake 'Em on Down"
2,   "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl"
3,   "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning"
4. "Fred McDowell's Blues"
5,   "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Jesus"
6,   "Drop Down Mama"
7,   "Going Down to the River"
8,   "Wished I Was in Heaven Sitting Down"
9,   "When the Train Comes Along"
10,   "When You Get Home Please Write Me a Few of Your Lines"
11,   "Worried Mind Blues"
12,   "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning"
(Instrumental Reprise)

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