Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mississippi Fred McDowell

by Pete Simonelli

Mississippi Fred McDowell: Live at the Gaslight
Recorded: November 5th, 1971, New York City

Several years, and many miles, after his discovery by the great (and sometimes controversial) Blues musicologist, Alan Lomax, Mississippi Fred McDowell’s two sets this night in New York City proved to be the culmination of a long and rich career.

Born in Rossville, Tennessee, McDowell settled in Como, Mississippi in the early 40s, working as a plowman and cultivating his distinct style of slide guitar in local picnics and dances in the region known as The Hills: an area just north of the Mississippi Delta, noted for its own brand of Blues that hewed closer to the African tradition of repetitive rhythms, or “vamps.” He was taught to play slide guitar by an uncle, gradually using a beef rib bone before turning to a pocket knife and, later, as his style and gift were fully developed, a more common glass side he wore on his ring finger. Lomax arrived in 1959 and found McDowell and his wife on their porch, “looking like a couple of hungry blackbirds.” A questionable allusion today, but Lomax said Fred was, understandably, “eager to record.” In his highly acclaimed book, The Land Where the Blues Began, Lomax continues, “We recorded outdoors after dark, by flashlight. No wind was blowing, and the katydids were out of season, so we could take advantage of the living quiet of open air and the natural resonance of the earth and the trees….The sound we captured made us all deliriously happy.”

That same kind of sensation comes across in the intimate setting of the Gaslight. Greeted by an eager and excitable crowd, McDowell takes that energy and works off it throughout the entire recording. People gleefully heckle and cheer him on, entirely in love with him. It goes on like this throughout the show, McDowell being a consummate showman and kindly host, peppering his tuning breaks with explanations of how the Blues, “and Spirituals, too”, are conveyed to him and thus onto his listeners. He never flaunts his authority over the music, never condescends or rhapsodizes the crowd with hollow banter. Instead, he relies on a convivial and sympathetic approach. And as the songs unfold in alternating bouts of grief and redemption, sorrow and joy, the easy, fluid mastery of his playing--- and by extension, his personality--- is undeniable.

Given the palpable sweat and heat that reaches out of this recording, you’d never think that winter was fast approaching outside the Gaslight that night. But it was in fact an approaching cold that would settle over the world when, just a few short months later, Fred McDowell would die of cancer in 1972. Listening to these songs, accompanied by the late Tom Pomposello on bass (who also provides the liner notes and some fond, insightful memories to the collection), is an intimate and sometimes chilling experience when considering the proximity of McDowell’s death. He never recorded again, and to hear these songs unfold is easily one of the greatest listening pleasures any music lover could have. It’s not essential to be a fan of the Blues; this music resonates with such force and authenticity it would be hard not to feel instantly moved by McDowell’s singular ability to make his music stand out and be heard. As he so often said, the Blues “is a feeling, you understand,” and to hear his playing is to understand and capture not only the root of Blues music but what music in general can do for the soul of the listener.

A lofty sentiment perhaps. But if you go straight to the end (yes, straight to the end) of this double CD set, to “Get Right Church”, I think you’ll see what I mean. Granted, it is a haunting number that could unsettle the fainter heart, but the virtuosity of the playing and how McDowell’s plaintive voice combines with the hair-raising, get-right-to-the-bottom-of-the-well tone of his guitar is something beyond explanation. I’ve listened to this song repeatedly for years and my addiction to it is hopeless. I take to it like a dog to an ass scratch; all physical surroundings are lost; I succumb to the feeling.

When the song ends I turn around and play it again, thinking the only approximation to this kind of performance can be found in the likes of Son House or Skip James (each of whom are welcome inspirations to McDowell). There’s an ethereal, transcendent quality to the performance. Pomposello holds a grinding rhythm as McDowell luxuriates over the top of it, sometimes falling in with the bass line for a beat or two before he winds out of it and lets the guitar punctuate and/or finish the lyric. Many bluesmen---from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Sleepy John Estes on down---substitute notes for the voice and finish a lyric; I realize it’s nothing new. But to hear it so closely (due to the great mastering of the recording) and with such acoustic density is truly akin to watching the show along with all the other fortunate folks who were there that night. You just have to close your eyes.

Another notable song, “Red Cross Store”, can also be found on the second of the two CD’s (track no.7). To call this number anything other than an indictment would be wrong. Even more so, this particular take is a variation on the original lyrics. Instead of a man taken to task by a woman, McDowell counters that idiom with a stirring version about a man looking to feed his family. Encountering the sheer rejectionof an otherwise charitable organization--- “Go ‘way, boy, you know times got hard.”--- the song veers between an urgency and a telling narrative built on the era’s social injustice that isn’t found too often in McDowell’s catalogue. Though the driving rhythm is a signature style and serves up much of the tune’s anger, a resentful McDowell tells us from the outset: “Well I ain’t!/ gwine back!/ to that!/ Red Cross!!/ store no more // ain’t gon/ na let my baby go back (to that) Red Cross/ store no more.” This is the verse that gets me, the opener, because you know something’s terribly wrong (the delivery tells us as much) and he’s not having it. When followed by the vow that he won’t let his baby go back either, I hear the conviction of a loving and righteous soul who won’t let anyone else suffer the way he already has.

By the third and fourth verses he’s laid out the story for us: boll weevils in the meat, (corn) meal, and lard, and there’s absolutely nothing to show for anybody’s work. The very people who have tended to the food--- sowed it, reaped it, and slaughtered it--- are suddenly told that it’s not available to them; it’s tainted, and there’s not a damned thing anybody’s going to do about it. The Blues, indeed.

On a lighter note, listen for something really cool at the very opening of the song. After a short tuning, McDowell slowly, almost cautiously, begins the song, letting it find its swing. Just as it starts to ramp up, a woman in the audience cuts loose and screams right into the song. It sounds like she’s launching it to fruition, and it’s the kind of enthusiasm that makes any great set a little more memorable. I sometimes go back to “Red Cross Store” just so I can hear her again.

This is standard-bearing work and shows us an artist, poet and farmer in one of his finest hours. Lomax would go on to lament Fred’s preference for electric Blues, believing that he’d lost one of his golden boys to the bright lights and flashy suits, but there’s really nothing lost at all. The porch is just New York City now.


“Get Right Church” mp3
"Red Cross Store" mp3
"Someday Baby" mp3
"When The Saints Go Marchin' In" mp3
"You Got To Move" mp3

by Mississippi Fred McDowell, 1971.
available on Live at the Gaslight

this photograph:
by William Eggleston,
Untitled, 1972.

top photograph:
by Lee Friedlander
Fred McDowell, Senatobia, Mississippi, 1960.


Retro Hound said...

Great write-up. I love slide guitar and McDowell is one of the best.

Bob Pomeroy said...

Selected cuts from this same show were released on Tomato LP "Shake 'Em On Down" from '89, tho minus "Red Cross Store" weirdly enough. A great record and all, but I say Chris Strachwitz got the best Fred McDowell recordings, released on those early Arhoolie LPs, with Johnny Woods playing harp on a few songs.

Pete said...

Bob, those recordings are great, too. I wouldn't argue with you. The story about tracking down Johnny Woods for those recordings makes them sound even better.

Wee Tommy said...

The late English folk singer Peter Bellamy had a lovely story about Fred McDowell. During one of Fred’s visits to Europe he was sitting talking with Peter in an empty theatre, while the stage was being set up for a concert. Peter’s wife Anthea came in to join them, at which point Fred leapt to his feet to offer Anthea his seat. Every other seat in the thousand seater auditorium was empty, but Fred made sure that Anthea got his. As Peter said – the ultimate gentleman.

italianbeat said...

Hey, look Fred McDowell in the was a freemasson?

Mr. Lee said...

Great post... Thanks!

Fritsch said...

Thanks, Ted. What a great artist & what a great post. Thanks for this one. All the best & safe travels, Fritsch.

lil m said...

Where'd y'all find this obscure southern blues scholar Simonelli?

Damn...When's a serious summary of Humble Pie's Rockin' The Fillmore coming?

Rogelio T. said...

Great post.
That Gaslight CD has been made available for free download over on animation producer Fred Seibert's website. He was one of the producers on the records and co-owner of oblivion records. Lots of info on the recordings there.
Also scroll through this page for more info on the recordings.

Anonymous said...

As the previous comment said, a great right up - however, it's spoilt by the lack of respect you've shown by placing Fred's death picture online.

Ted Barron said...

The 'death picture' is a photograph by Memphis artist and friend of Fred McDowell, William Eggleston, which has been exhibited in museums and published in several monographs. It's a dignified photograph, and we reproduce it here with respect to the artist and the subject.

Titatoma said...

Mississippi Fred McDowell is cool ...
Greetings from an austrian Boogie Pianoplayer ...

Anonymous said...

thanks you for all your great posts.