Mississippi Fred McDowell never sought fame or fortune. In fact, he even didn’t own a guitar for most of his life. He was content to farm and play for tips outside the candy shop in Como, Mississippi.
Then one evening in 1959, after a day’s work picking cotton, he came upon folklorists Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins. They were recording some of the local old time musicians. At a spry 55 years old, they thought Fred too young. But what came out of that guitar proved he’d learned from the masters—and then some. Collins remembers Lomax jotting down a single word in his notebook: “Perfect.”
Mississippi Fred soon became renowned for his hypnotic sound. He refined his slide technique with a bottleneck made out of a Gordon’s gin bottle. “If you listen,” he’d say “what I sing the guitar sings too.” Haunting spirituals as well as hot blues vamps. He had no problem singing the music of both the devil and the lord. But there’s one thing he did insist, even when he switched to an electric guitar—he don’t play no rock n’ roll.
When the Rolling Stones covered his spiritual “You Got to Move,” Mississippi Fred saw a surge in popularity. And lots of requests for the, now rock n’ roll, classic.
Mississippi Fred left behind a hell of a lot more than that one track. He taught a young man named R.L. Burnside and a young lady named Bonnie Raitt. And he wrote some of the coolest blues songs of all time. Here’s one. Mississippi Fred McDowell with “Kokomo Blues.”
Fred McDowell was born on January 12, 1904 in Rossville, Tennessee. He began to play guitar at 14, but never really considered a career in music. In 1928, he moved to Mississippi, settling in Como, continuing to farm during the day and play dances at night. Initially, he learned to play slide with a pocket knife, then moved on to a beef rib bone. Finally, he settled on the neck of a Gordon’s gin bottle for it’s clear sound.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, McDowell never recorded before the war. His career was no revival of what once had been. Fred McDowell was “discovered” for the first time in 1959, by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins. Though this discovery led to widespread acclaim and relative success, McDowell maintained his humble roots. He traveled the blues circuit with Dick Waterman, his manager, and all the while continued to farm in Como, Mississippi, as well as to play the old North Mississippi Hill Country blues that he’d known all his life.
Meanwhile, he taught R.L. Burnside to keep up a propulsive rhythm, and gave a young Bonnie Raitt the slide tricks of the trade. He saw a resurgence in popularity after the Rolling Stones released a straightforward version of his spiritual “You Gotta Move” on the album Sticky Fingers. Despite his insistence that he “Don’t Play No Rock N’ Roll,” Mississippi Fred was evidently flattered by the Stones cover.
McDowell died of cancer in 1972, and is buried at the Hammond Hill Baptist church outside of Como.