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.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Billy Lee Riley Needs Your Help

This notice originally appeared on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame site:

Billy Lee Riley, one of the remaining original Sun Records artists is in VERY bad need of help! Billy has had his share of health problems, and is now battling Stage FOUR bone cancer.

Although MusiCares is helping with house payment, car and such, He and Joyce are totally out of money and can barely afford to eat. This is a CALL FOR HELP to all musicians and fans. Please remember, twenty bucks from all of us would make a HUGE difference in Billy's life! What if this was you? Let's all get together and send something today to Billy and Joyce and show them that he means alot to us. If you have a website, a facebook or myspace, please post this need for help on it! We can't save the world, but it will mean alot in Billy Lee's life!

His Address is:

Billy Lee Riley
723 Crest Drive
Jonesboro, Arkansas 72401

Or Donate via PayPal to


"Flying Saucers Rock n' Roll" mp3
by Billy Lee Riley, 1957.
available on Red Hot: The Best of Billy Lee Riley

"Red Hot"
by Billy Lee Riley, 1957.
available on Red Hot: The Best of Billy Lee Riley

"Wouldn't You Know" mp3
by Billy Lee Riley, 1958.
available on Red Hot: The Best of Billy Lee Riley

via The Hound Blog

Saturday, July 4, 2009



"Freedom" mp3
by Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, Ben Vaughn, 1996.
available on Cubist Blues

"Freedom Part 1" mp3
by Charles Mingus, 1962.
available on The Complete Town Hall Concert

"Freedom Part 2 (Clark in the Dark)" mp3
by Charles Mingus, 1962
available on The Complete Town Hall Concert

"Freedom Blues" mp3
by Little Richard, 1971.
available on Rill Thing

"Freedom Train" mp3
by James Carr, 1969.
available on The Complete Goldwax Singles

"Freedom Street" mp3
by Ken Boothe, 1971.
available on Freedom Street

"Everytime I Think of Freedom" mp3
by Karen Dalton, 1962.
available on Cotton Eyed Joe

"Chimes of Freedom" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1964.
available on Another Side of Bob Dylan

top photo: © Ted Barron
Washington Square, New York City, 1984.