Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
When most people today get to talking about the blues masters, they first mention names like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. Further on into the conversation, you hear Elmore James, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Son House. Stick around a while longer and there’s Skip James, Charley Patton, Furry Lewis and Tommy Johnson. Take root at that table, settle in, and you get to Mississippi Fred McDowell, slide guitar master, renowned to those well-initiated, but relatively obscure to many.
Of course this conversational progression is by no means doctrine of blues hierarchy, but it is a fact that Fred McDowell is rarely mentioned in the same breath as many other early masters of the craft, despite the fact that he was their contemporary. This is not for lack of talent, but rather the unusual origin of McDowell’s blues that set him apart.
McDowell was born in 1904 in Rossville, Tennessee but eventually moved to Mississippi, working for a spell in a feed mill in Memphis and settling in Como, a town in a region known as ‘North Mississippi’, just to the east of the Delta. It is here McDowell lived and developed his own brand of the blues. He began playing slide guitar with a pocketknife, as did Henry Sloan (a man mentioned many times here, famous for playing the first blues W.C. Handy ever heard and writing the ubiquitous lyric, ‘goin’ where The Southern cross The Dog’). McDowell then graduated to a ground-down steak bone, for which he is famous, and eventually a true glass bottleneck. As played by McDowell, this brand of blues, referred to as ‘hill country’, is a slide-based, Delta-esque style that incorporates some of the finger-picking flourishes of East Coast, ragtime-influenced Piedmont blues, while emphasizing African traditions like droning and single chord “harmonic centers” played in repetition, rather than complicated chord changes and drastic variations movement to movement. Succeeded by the more modern artists of Fat Possum Records such as Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell was arguably the first successful ‘hill country’ blues artist. He is widely regarded in deep blues circles as one of the most technically talented slide guitar players to ever slip on the bottleneck but does not often receive the same accolades as his contemporaries because of this slightly removed, heavily localized and “primitive” style.
Like many seminal blues artists active in the 20s and 30s, McDowell’s popularity subsided in the late thirties, concurrent to the approach of the Second World War, but a rise in the popularity of folk and blues music in the late fifties brought about an infamous rediscovery period for all music Americana, of which McDowell was a primary beneficiary. He recorded with the truly immortal Alan Lomax in 1959, which eschewed McDowell into a career renaissance. His music received state-of-the-art sonic treatment, rather than the hasty, acetate field recording he was used to. The uniqueness and virtuosity of McDowell’s sound showed through for the first time in crystal lucidity (a track recorded by Lomax from early in this period, indicative of the audio quality and guitar styling of the sessions, is “What’s The Matter Now?”, and well worth checking out). The records recorded by McDowell and Lomax proved immensely popular and he toured extensively as a result. Those recordings still stand today as some of the finest, most poised and truly remarkable tracks of his career.
One such record, Steakbone Slide Guitar, McDowell’s first solo electric album and one of the last he recorded before his death in 1972, exhibits the searing slide, soulful articulation and idiosyncratic, indefatigable spirit for which his music, and the man himself, is still revered.
The album opens with the blues standard, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, originally recorded in 1937 by John Lee Williamson (AKA Sonny Boy Williamson I). This song has been done and done and done by almost every bluesman under the sun, but McDowell, somehow, seems to imbue it with new life unlike any other rendition this author has heard. His acrid but immensely satisfying slide work elicits a kind of vibration deep in your mind’s center akin to floating in still waters. The hypnotic tweak and twang of his glass bottleneck, mimicking his vocal patterns in a songbird’s call-and-response, juxtaposes with a clean, sharp melodic attack his gruff, aged vocals, emulsifying into a strange, southern syrup tinged with the mellow sweetness of sugar cane and decades of toil’s salty tang.
McDowell proceeds to play several timeless blues standards, such as the first song he ever learned, “Big Fat Mama”, as well as “The Train I Ride”, “Get Right Church” and “Worried Life Blues”, billed here as “You Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Anymore”, all in beautiful, skillful fashion, sliding up and down his open-tuned neck with a calm and practiced air, often embellishing with “talking slide”, a common but nonetheless impressive technique where the last, or last few, words of a particular phrase are dropped and replaced by a slide guitar’s approximate enunciation, fore-father to the modern talk box popularized by Peter Frampton and wah-wah pedals of Hendrix and countless funk acts.
The centerpiece of the record is a McDowell original, “What’s The Matter With Papa’s Little Angel Child?”. Perhaps the most classically ‘hill country’ of all the songs on the record, McDowell stays on a repetitive, finger-picked progression, circling doggedly the harmonic center, milking from it a churning, trance-like phrase which he intersperses with choice flourishes on his top strings, moving his thumb-heavy bass up a string or two but working still underneath, anchoring, pulling you deeper and deeper into the groove and out of your body. “I wonder what’s a-matter / With Papa’s little angel child? / She won’t come home / ‘Til twelve o’clock at night,” he cries, his guitar seething and writhing as if it were his rogue thoughts and he is wrestling with it, calling out in desperate agony like a snake charmer no longer in control of his serpent: “the meanest woman, lord, you’ve e’er seen.”
The album closes with the song for which McDowell is likely most well-known, “You Gotta Move”, a slow, twisting exhibition of slide mastery made famous by The Rolling Stones of their celebrated 1971 album, Sticky Fingers. McDowell, who was later clung to like a shark with so many suckerfish by the rock-and-rollers and blues-wannabe, rediscoverers-and-appropriators the 60s and 70s, famous declared, “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll.” He was reluctant to associate himself with younger pop acts, but taught the worthy, including Bonnie Raitt, with generosity and patience the ways of slide. Despite his aversion to rock-and-rollers, McDowell was flattered and delighted by The Rolling Stones remarkably faithful rendition of this song, and when listening to McDowell’s original, it is clear that The Stones went to great lengths to preserve the essence and tonal integrity of a master’s masterpiece.
Blues historian and music critic, Robert Palmer, wrote in his classic book, Deep Blues, about the truly subtle and almost imperceptible tonal intricacies of blues music, the bending of notes so delicately and precisely that a particular intonation is achieved, both vocally and instrumentally. A music thought by many uninitiated to be primitive, loose, even sloppy, Palmer argued is, in fact, extraordinarily and almost incomprehensibly complex, a somewhat mystical musical style built upon difficult techniques honed over years of physical and mental preparation, often born of a very specific upbringing, one of anguish, hard work and a complicated relationship with a very Southern brand of faith.
“You Gotta Move” is, in the author’s mind, perhaps the best example of that precise intonation. McDowell delivers a powerful, brilliant performance, but the magnitude of its brilliance could just as easily be confused for not giving a shit whatsoever. Somewhere in this gray area is the mystical allure of the blues, a seemingly relaxed, low-down and easy musical form that, once examined, becomes a convoluted abyss of names, genres, sub-genres, styles, apocryphal tales and astonishing skill. McDowell straddles that line better than most, laying back during “You Gotta Move” in a special sweet spot, “the pocket”, setting fire to shine soaked juke joints with the scorch of his slide and beckoning patrons to dance the building down with a cool, throaty holler.
Maybe it is the seemingly sleepy, sly, cock-eyed vibe of the droning ‘hill country’ blues that kept the genre and its artists so long from the popularity that other brands of other Southern blues experienced? Maybe it is their slightly removed position from the Delta, plantation-cum-blues Meccas Dockery and Stovall and the infamous Beale Street that held them back? Maybe it is the superficially simple use of the harmonic center that led audiences to gravitate to more apparently complex forms? What it is the author cannot say, but if exploring the vast musical tradition of the ‘hill country’ means digging deep into blues and its periphery, passing on the way the Blinds, the Johnsons and the Jameses, marooning oneself on a distant and reputedly “lesser” form of blues all in the name of finding one man who can make the guitar speak in a tongue you’ve never heard, then the answer is simple. You gotta move.
Written by Ben Brundage