Fred McDowell



(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger
Aug 6, 1993. 
The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund dedicated the tall, granite headstone for Fred McDowell at the Hammond Hill Baptist Church cemetery in Como, Mississippi, in pouring rain on the afternoon of August 6th, 1993.  The finance's for the memorial were arranged with the help of noted blues photographer Dick Waterman, who contacted Bonnie Raitt and Chris Strachwitz, of Arhoolie Records, each of whom contributed a third of the costs. 


Mt. Zion Memorial Fund attorney Robert Arentson, who also contributed to the project, almost lost his life that day. While attempting to stop and turn into the church parking lot, his vehicle hydroplaned and slid down the road for a ways, nearly careening down a steep embankment. He managed to regain control, however, and pulled safely into the parking lot. He was white as a ghost upon exiting his vehicle.

Waterman eulogized McDowell in front of a small crowd, including a number of the musician's surviving relatives who were assembled at the church. In this case the memorial stone was a replacement for a smaller, damaged and inaccurate marker. The original head stone was subsequently donated by McDowell’s family to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Mississippi Fred McDowell : A Hard Road's a bit Smoother
By Rick Maedler - 1970

Fred McDowell was born in Tennessee just outside of Memphis in 1904. When he performs he begins by warning the audience. "There's one thing I want you to know . . . I don't play no rock 'n' roll. You may not like my music but that's all right. 'cause I'm gonna play it for ya anyway." When you hear his music either live or recorded you're stuck by its incredible intensity. He starts off every song with an introduction on the guitar. The vocal comes in and the guitar drones on, playing the same initial riff over and over until suddenly you realize the hypnotic force of it. Fred sings what he feels:

Lord, when you get home, baby,
Sit down and write me few o' your linesLord, dat'll be consolationLord, mama, to my worryn' mind.

There is nothing like the old Mississippi blues. Fred has played them for about forty years. When he was just learning to play guitar he was working near Cleveland, Miss. Every Saturday night the men would go to the local jook joint. The camp owner provided plenty of liquor and women. Today Fred McDowell lives in Como, Miss., and works in the local Stuckey's as a busboy. His employer allows him time off for his gigs. He has been doing better every year and at the moment does about three appearances a month. He was discovered by Alan Lomax in the early 1960s and recorded a few tracks for Lomax's excellent series on Atlantic records. Fred now records for Arhoolie and has a number of albums, all of high quality. Until just a few years ago he was driving a tractor in the fields from sunup to sundown and then for another three or four hours after dinner, a total of about 16 hours. 

Fred McDowell's music is a mixture of the traditional music of the Delta region of Mississippi and personal improvisations. He recalls hearing records by Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson during the 1920's. stems largely from the other musicians who lived nearby. Sid Hemphill, Eli Green and Robert Payne were particularly strong influences. We can only speculate about just how they influenced his music because none of them ever recorded [Eli recorded a couple tunes and Sid did on the quills]. It seems likely though that the formative influences on his music were primarily local musicians. The 1890s were the formative period of the country blues and the 1920s were the crucible of the musical development of Fred McDowell. Listening to his music today is like savoring a rare vintage wine, a shadowy glimpse of at what times were like then. Today we seem to be entering another era in which exciting music is made by the guy next door, which maybe explains the renewed interest in old traditional music, or what the kids call the roots.

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