Fred McDowell: The First Recordings

(
Rounder Records
)

Recorded in 1959 by Alan Lomax, assisted by Shirley Collins
Notes by Matthew Barton

Originally from Rossville (near Memphis), Tennessee, “Mississippi” Fred McDowell (1904-1972) started playing guitar at local dances the age of 14. Moving in the early 1940s to ComoMississippi, he took up farm work and continued playing recreationally among the musical community of the hill country, lending his affecting singing and expert slide guitar work to both country dances and religious functions. When Alan Lomax met him in 1959, McDowell had never recorded, despite a virtuosity that would easily have put him in the company of such early commercially recorded country bluesmen as Bukka White or Furry Lewis. He soon became, however, a star of the 1960s and ‘70s folk revival, playing the Newport Folk Festival, touring Europe, recording several albums, and being covered by the Rolling Stones. These are his first recordings, recorded in stereo by Lomax at home in Como — joyful, sad, erotic, and haunting blues, many released here for the first time, including several that he never again recorded.

“The blues, speaking through Fred, sounded like a deep-voiced herald of the loi[ancestral spirits or demigods in Haiti], a silver-voiced, heavenly choir answering him from the treble strings…. Fred was surprised when I admired his music sufficiently to visit him for several evenings and record everything he knew. In true country fashion he kept telling me that he couldn’t play nearly as well as other men he knew. In my estimation he is simply a modest man, for in him the great tradition of the blues runs pure and deep, and no note in any one of his performances lacks a touch of gentle melancholy.” —Alan Lomax