Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,264

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,264


This is the grave of Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Born in 1904 in Rossville, Tennessee, McDowell grew up in the sharecropping world of Jim Crow. His family picked cotton. His parents died when he was young and by the time he was 14, he was playing guitar, picking some cotton, but mostly trying to make it as a musician when he could. He hated picking, as so many did. In 1926, he got out of there and moved to Memphis. Life wasn’t so easy there either, but at least he wasn’t picking cotton and there were more people to hear him play guitar. But that wasn’t so great either. He finally ended up in Mississippi, back picking. He went back and forth over the next couple of decades between Memphis and the hill country of north Mississippi. We know he was working in a hotel in Memphis in 1940 because he applied for a Social Security card while there. For awhile in here, he got religion and gave up the blues. In fact, he didn’t touch a guitar for six years as he embraced the sacred and within the Black community the blues were often seen as the music of Satan. But he started playing again in the 50s.

A lot of the bluesmen discovered in the 1960s were in fact rediscovered. They were the living guys who were recorded in the 1920s and early 1930s and then lost. But McDowell was not that way. He had been living through a half-century of poverty, cotton, and guitar. By 1959, he was in his mid-50s, an aging but locally popular bluesman. But that year, the legendary musicologist Alan Lomax and the British folk musician Shirley Collins traveled through the South to record folk musicians. This was the amazing collection anthologized as Southern Journey by the Smithsonian’s music label. A lot of these recordings are really great–from shape singers in Alabama to Ozark pickers. Well, one of the people they recorded on their travels was Fred McDowell. But what Lomax realized here is that McDowell wasn’t some guy who was just useful on an archival recording. This was an artist with some power who would tap into current interests.

McDowell was a very good slide guitarist and sometimes played electric, so it wasn’t surprising he would be a real hit in the folk scene and then with the British musicians who idolized the Black players they heard on recordings from across the pond. He started recording albums in the mid-60s and did so with aplomb, more than happy to make some money. McDowell claimed he did not play rock and roll but he proved very amenable to playing with those young rockers who so adored him. The money no doubt did not hurt either. He toured England with blues musicians and got to meet all these people. The Stones really loved him and recorded his “You Gotta Move” on their seminal album Sticky Fingers, objectively the greatest albums the Stones ever recorded. McDowell loved it and also loved the royalties. He basically taught Bonnie Raitt how to perfect her slide playing.

Somewhat ironically, McDowell only recorded acoustic music in those early albums. I guess he was filling the market. But on his 1969 album, I Do Not Play No Rock ‘n’ Roll, he played electric. He would also play the great songs of his buddies and was a well-known cover artists of other blues masters.

In 1972, McDowell died of stomach cancer, at the age of 68. I wonder what the 70s would have been like for a guy like this. Given his relatively young age but also given the turn in the 70s away from roots music, I wonder what a later career would have been like for him. In any case, we will never know.

Mississippi Fred McDowell is buried in Hammond Hill Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, Como, Mississippi. When he died, no one was really around to pay for a good grave stone and in fact, it had an inaccurate birth date. This was fixed in 1993 when Bonnie Raitt stepped in to pay for a better and more accurate one. Good for her. She’s always got her heart in the right place.

Let’s listen to some Fred McDowell.

If you would like this series to visit other blues artists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Johnson is in Greenwood, Mississippi and Albert King is in Edmondson, Arkansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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