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r~ < uA, F< a fs é a . ~ 3 G2 en 8) a Com aCe Tat > POR 14 YEARS, THI rt . - Me STONES GREAT G AREST | 4A CN , Lg ae reprinted from Guiter Player Magazine, November 1977 MISSISSIPPI FRED MCDOWELL ISSISSIPPI FRED McDOWELL was one of the most important rural blues gutaris to come out ‘of the Blues Revival of the 1960s. Undis- ‘covered until 1959, Fred was first recorded by Alan Lomax on one of the folklorisi's ‘many field trips to the South. McDowell's specialty was bottleneck slide. with an eerie vocallike tone. In 1969 the blues singer switched from acoustic to electric, which, if anything, only added intensity 0 ‘that subtle. whining quality ‘McDowell's playing infiuenced numer- ous rock and blues slide guitarists, includ ing Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Siones' Keith Richard. Here, his main protege, Honest Tom Pomposello (who accom- Panied the Mississippi bluesman as bass guitarist from 1971 until McDowell's death in 1973), offers some insightful re- membrances into Fred, the man, and Mississippi Fred, one of America’s great- est blues guitarists. Gr VEN NOW, Ican remember hearing my fizst Mississippi Fred McDowell record. I remember monkeying around with a slide piece for the guitar, saying to my wife: “Boy, if only I could learn to get that sound, 1 would leave for Mississippi tomorrow and find Fred McDowell and persuade him to teach me.” The kind of stuff dreams are made ‘of, About one month later, in November of 1970, I was going to get the chance to make a’ dream come true, Twas walking around the West Village in New York City one night, and I passed by the old Gaslight club on MacDougal Street. Their sign read “Appearing next ‘week: Mississippi Fred McDowell.” On opening night I was at the Gaslight wo hours early, so I could get the first table, I sat there in awe, about five feet away from Fred, watching this old man of the blues execute some of his classic bottleneck guitar licks, making them sound brand new. ‘After the show, I weaseled my way backstage and approached him. I asked him about his music, and he answered without any reluctance. Then | finally got around to the big question. “You know, Mr. McDowell, il could, I'd realy like to Ihave the chance to take a few lessons from you. If you'd like to show me a few things while you're here in New York. I'd be glad {0 pay you for the opportunity!” He just smailed and said, “Well, I tell you. Some day this week, you just come up to where Tm staying at. Give me a call, and Til show you whatever Ican. There's ne sense in me taking any money for the few litle things T can show you." Legendary _ Bottleneck Stylist By Tom Pomposelio As [ got to know Fred better over the years, I found this to be indicative of the musician he was. He would take the time out of his life to show his music to anyone who would ask, flattered that they were interested. Unlike so many artists who are reluctant to explain the intricacies of their styles for fear (often ‘with good reason) of being ripped off and receiving no recognition. McDowell's philosophy was, “Well, that might be true; that’s just what they ‘may do. But { do know that in their hearts, after Tm dead and buried, they're always gonna remem ber that I was the one that showed it to them even if they don't tell nobody else.” 1 did call Fred while he was in town, and he said “Sure, come on up.” I went to see him nervous a5 hell, brought along my guitar, and stuck my bass guitar (which T ‘was playing in a rock band) in the trunk of my car. Well, he tried hard to show me things, but 1 couldn't do anything. I couldn't get the fingerpicking motion co- ordinated. My intonation withthe bottle neck would have made a dog howl, but MeDowell di get me started. I was about to leave when I decided that 1 would like to redeem myself in my idol’ eyes. I told him I played some bass, and asked if | could try to accompany him on a few rummbers. Fred said, “Sure, why didn't you say so?" So T hurried downstairs to get my instrument, came up, and plugged into an amp. We began playing, and evidently 1 was following him pretty well, because he Kept throwing one song at me after an- other, each one getting a bit faster and a Title more intricate. A couple of times he laughed out loud, 1 guess surprised how this long-haired italian kid from Long Island seemed so familiar with his songs What Fred didn't know was that by this time I had collected all of his records and used to sit home and try to figure them out on guitar; when I couldn't do that, 1 ‘would play along with the records on my bass. Fred carried me through a few num- bers, then paused for a moment. “Wel, how about playing with me at.the Gas- light tonight?" he said laughing. 1 was kind of stunned by that question and made some sort of lame excuse as to how | had to get back to my job. Fred gave me every opportunity to change my mind, but my inhibitions won out. Before saying goodbye, he gave me a couple of memen= tos, and I gave him a bottle of Beefeaters gin. More important, he gave me his address in Mississippi where he would be returning shortly. ‘We stayed in close touch by mail, and When he returned 10 New York a few months later, I was musically ready. I got in touch with his close friend and manager, Dick Waterman, and when Fred came to town, he stayed at my house. I worked the igs with him in New York City, which ‘were by this time getting to be quite frequent. This is how I began a relation- ship that lasted for almost two years, until MeDowells death in July of 1973. It would be trite to relate the way Fred turned my musical perspectives around. Dut perhaps the most important moments in my musical development occurred dur- ing the time I spent with him at his mobile home in Como, Mississippi, enjoying his hospitality and that of his devoted wife, Ester Mae. Fred was recuperating from ‘operation that he would neverfully recover from, and he still took the time to show me What Mississippi blues was really about. MeDowell was born somewhere be- tween 1903 and. 1906. No one seems certain, because back then if you were black and living on a plantation no one Kept accurate documentation of such things. He was born in Rossville, Tennes- see-—a fact which always used t0 bemuse Fred. “They call me Mississippi Fred, but really ny home is in Rossville, Tennesse.” He became interested in guitar when he was in his late teens. 1 remember him tel- ‘Ang me ne time, “When 1 was a boy. I think the first blues record I ever heard ‘was Blind Lemon Jefferson singing ‘Black ‘Snake Moan.’ ‘O-oh, ain't got no mama, now. Man, I tell you, I thought that was the prettiest little thing I'd ever heard.” By this time, music was all around Fred. His tuncle Gene Shields was a guitarist and a leader of a trio, He credits Shields with being the first one he saw play in the bottleneck style. His uncle had taken a ‘beef rib bone and filed it down smooth and then played with it on his litle finger. ‘Also in Uncle Gene's trio was a har- monica player named Cal Payne, who showed Fred “John Henry” Cal's son Raymond was about the same age as Fred, who used to say, “He was a real: good ‘guitar player, regular style, not bottle neck.” But Raymond would never show anyone anything, “If you'd walk into the room when Raymond was playing,” Fred recalled, “he'd right away put the guitar down 30 you couldn't see what he was doing. Then he'd make some kind of ‘excuse, ‘Tm tired now’ or “My fingers Burt" I often think this early experience ‘was one of the reasons why McDowell always was s0 open about his style. “Other ‘musicians might try to lose you when they play with you to make themselves look better than you,” he said, “but they don't know how bad it makes them look.” Despite Raymond Payne's reluctance to teach him anything, Fred stil insisted that “no one could show me nothing anyway. Everyone could play ‘cept me. All: ‘the boys. But I had to learn things my own way. Even if you'd be showing me, Td Ihave to go off on my own and get it my way. They'd all be playing ball or some- thing, and 1'4 be practicing on Booster Green's guitar.” (Eli “Booster” Green was tan older friend and one-time mentor of Fred's with whom he was later reunited musically by Chris Strachwitz on a 1966 regording session for Arhoolie [Fred ‘MeDowelt, Vol. IN) Itwas Eli who taught. ‘MeDowell the celebrated tune, “Write Me A Few Lines” [see p. 99}) The first song Fred ever learned was Tommy Johnson's “Big Fat Mama (With The Meat Shakin’ On Your Bones).” “I learned it on one string,” he explained, “then two, note by note. Man, Labout worried that firststring to death trying to learn that song.” This note-by-note method was one that was go- ing to become an intricate part of Fred's later day technical approach. Even though McDowell experienced his share of obstacles on guitar, he was always sought after as a vocalist. He ‘would be invited to the old time Saturday night suppers and would always be asked to sing along with the other guitarists. ‘When they would get tied, Fred would take over on guitar, too. Fred left Rossville when he was about 21, tired of plowing fields with a mule. During a trip south to Cleveland, Missis- sippi in the late 1920s at a Saturday night Juke joint, he heard the legendary Charlie ously began to adapt several of Pattons tunes to his own sive, “Gravel Rod” is his adaptation of Patton's “Down The Dirt Road Blues,” ‘MeDowell aso spent & good deal of time in Memphis before he ultimately fete! in Mistsipp, He held down a ‘aviety of jobe a a laborer. In Memphis throughout the 1930s he tried to master the guitar but was hampered by nol owe ing his own instrument, While working t a airy outside of Memphis, he got his frst guitar. A white man from Texas, by the name of Mr. Taslor, whom Fred te membered quite fondly, presented it to im. This was 1941, just before Fred decided to move south to Mississippi and settle down near his sister, Te was in Como, Mississippi, that Fred MeDowell was to ultimately refine the style that would one day classify him as ‘one of the greatest country bluesmen of the postwar years. In'1959, folklorist Alan Lomax ven- tured into Northwestern Misssippi dur ing» recording field trp of the southern United States) When Lomax came to Como, he inguired as to whether there were any foal Biuesmen that he should hear, explaining that he was fom record company. Among the first names given was Fred McDowell. ‘Lomax found Fred at home that even- ing and proceeded to record him. Fred played well into the night forthe session {irom 800 Ps. until almost 7:00 aM, a8 he recall it), When Lomax finally de- parted, he lett with promises that these Fecordings would bring McDowell fame tnd fortune, Wel, he was ball right, De- spite the fact thatthe payment was nom- inal the recordings when issued were met by much enthusiasm in folk and. blues cirles. What the recordings did for Fred ‘was to establish him, at the age of $5, as tne of the grat "new discoveries” in the blues wortd Fred had the opportunity to play and record fora whole new audience. In 1963, fally five yeas later, he performed at the Newport Folk Fesval, By this time Athoolie. and Testament records had issued solo albums by MeDowell. In 1965 and again in 1965, he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. In Germany and especially Great Britain, he was wonderfully received. Rolling Stone Keith Richard heard Fred’ version of the spiniyal “You Got To Move” [see p-98] ahd arranged it for the Rolling Stones ‘Sticky Fingers album [Rolling Stones, 59100) Tn’ 1969, Fred made country blues history in Great Britain, He recorded Solo album for the Transatlantic label sing eleirte guitar, It seems odd today, bat reaction atthe time among purists wat nixed. Everyone was used 10. Chicago blues played cketcaly, but Delta blues fn eleine guitar? One critic commented that he thought much of the sublet, especially in McDowelt's fills, was lost. the truth. One listen to “Amazing Grace performed on the electric instrument and you were a believer. Strangely enough, the instrument was very appropriate for the spiriuals Fred loved to perform. That shimmering tone he used to create and his sophisticated hand/bottleneck vibrato were seemingly intensified by the electrie instrument. Likewise his blues numbers particularly the pereussive, driving rhyth- ‘mic patterns in songs such as “Shake ‘Em On Down” and “Drop Down Mama” were greatly enhanced. And the electric instrument undoubtedly made Fred's music more accessible to a new generation of blues enthusiasts. He was well aware of. this and used to caution his admirers (quite tongue-in-cheek, I might add): “I do not play no rock'n'roll. yall. Just the straight and natch'l blue.” Prior to 1968, the majority of McDowell's recordings were performed fon an acoustic guitar, either his old wood- bodied National or his acoustic Hofner. 1 am not sure of the make of Fred's first electric; it was a red dual-pickup imitation of a Gibson ES-335. I only saw him use that electric once; by the time 1 began playing with him, he.had a replacement. His old electric konked out while he was fon tour in California, and he had it assessed as-simply not worth repairing. By now, he had grown accustomed to the electric sound, and had no desire to go ‘back to playing acoustic. Fred found a good deal on a cherry- colored, mid-Sixties Trini Lopez Stan- daré model Gibson, This instrument is not unlike the ES-335, except that the headstock has all six tuning machines on one side, like a Gibson Thunderbird, or similar to a Fender. Instead of f-holes, the ‘guitar had elongated, diamond-shaped soundholes. I can recall one night on stage, Rev. Gary Davis was in the au- dience, Hecame up to play a guest set,and Fred gave him his Gibson to use. MeDovwell let the stage, and Davis (who was blind) began retuning it. Fecling the strange headstock, he asked, “What kind of a guitar is this anyway that Fred's using? A Fender? What's Fred doing with a Fender?” A few people in the audience tried to explain that the guitar was a Gibson, but Rey. Gary insisted that he knew a Fender from a Gibson ‘MeDowell used this Trini Lopez guitar until his death, The only modification he hhad done to it was to slightly raise the strings, or more precisely, have the angle fat which the strings touched the nut, altered. This was done by the installation of a small metal shim, sort of like a long werted “U" just above the nut. This helped to raise the action ever so slightly in the lower position of the guitar, without resulting in higher action throughout, and not noticeably affecting the guitar's intonation. Fred used Black Diamond Light- Gauge Electric Strings (.0114, .014, 025, O31, .040, ,051). Actuaily, the brand or the gauge didn’t matter much, so long as the setincluded a plain, unwound Gstring. ‘Whenever he bought a new set of strings, before he laid the money on the counter, hhe made sure to check for that unwound string. When he would play my guitar, he would always say, “Tom, I can't hardly do nothin’ with this. You've got one of them wrapped G strings.” ‘When playing straight acoustic, he would pick with his bare. fingers—the thumb and index on his right hand. To get ‘on an electric, he thumbpick ‘and a plastic fingerpick on his index finger. His style of picking ranged from simple note-to-note to highly complex rhythmic and heavily syncopated brush strokes, oF any combination of the two. Most of McDowell's touring during the Iate Sixties and early Seventies was done in a Greyhound Bus. He hated to ly unless it was absolutely necessary. Conse- ‘quently, he used to carry only a small practice amp with him, hoping that when hhe arrived at a club or festival, he could plug into whatever better equipment was available. Often times there would be nothing ‘available, or else some well- ‘meaning producer would want to record the bluesman through his own amp, insist~ ing that it would be inaccurate to record a Dives artist using someone else's equip- ment. ‘This was unfortunate, because those little amps were maybe 10 to 15 watts, with cone 8 speaker. and not really sufficient for his purposes. Sometimes a club would combat this by close-miking his amp through the PA system, but unless this was done absolutely right, the result was often ‘very muddy sound. This is why many of Fred's recordings leave the listener with a false impression of his tone. I know from his reaction to good amps that what he was after was a clean, clear sound with a good ‘amount of t ‘The first time Fred tried to play bottle- neck guitar (as a child), he used a pocket- knife to emulate the style his Uncle Gene hhad using the beef rib bone. It didn't take ong for Fred to realize that in order to get the volume and clarity he wanted, he ‘would have to switch toa glass bottleneck. Since his style did not utilize full chords barred with a bottleneck, he chose to usea short neck (about 1” long) off of a Gor- don's gin bottle. I remember him telling me how many different things he had tried, but this gin bottleneck was the one he really liked. McDowell made his bottleneck, 1 be- lieve, by first seribing the bottle with some sharp object along the lines where be wanted it to break. Then he ran it under hot water in a bathtub, then under cold ‘water while he gently tapped it along the scribed seams. It worked on the first try {Fate must have been with him, because I ‘could never get this method to work for me!) sei Tes funny how a musician can get attached to something like a bottleneck, One evening, I saw Fred nervously rum- maging through his gitar ease, and then breathing a sigh of relief upon finding his. treasured Gordon's bottleneck. “Tom, if T'd have lost that.” he said, might as well turned around and went back home.” Once in Germany, when Fred was touring with the American Folk Blucs Festival he {old me how he reluctantly lent his bottle- neck to Buddy Guy, who wanted to try to work in a couple of slide tunes. Buddy Teturned and explained that he had acci- entaly dropped the slide, and it had broken, Fred almost fainted, He ted in vain to find a replacement in downtown Hamburg. He did finally find glassware bottle store and tried to explain to the proprietor how he would like him to cut Off the neck of this one bottle. The two Struggled through the language dificult until finally the shopkeeper nodded his head and gave an understanding smile. He disappeared into the backroom and re- fumed, beaming, about fifteen minutes later with the bottle beautifully cut into an antique vase! Mississippi Fred wore his bottleneck on his third or fourth finger, depending on the tuning Be wad sng He sed tre tunings: open E, open A, and stan- aie tially. Ou us Yastiee sease records, he often used the 4 tuning [E. A. EA, Gp, £ low to high), For this tuning he wore the bottleneck on his litle finger. In standard tuning as well (which he used infrequent), he would wear the bottle- neck on his litle finger, playing usualy in the key of E, using the bottleneck spar ingly, on perhaps a lead descending pents tonig scale done on the high E string. In open E tuning [F, BE, G#. B. E, low to high} Fred wore the bottleneck on his third (or ring) finger. He preferred to use his bottleneck more often in the £ tuning, because it lends itself more toward melodie playing. tis important to point out that when 1 refer to E or A tuning in Fred's case, Ts talking about avery relative thing. When he tuned his guitar to an £,he would not always tune fo a perfect E This is not to Say his guitar wasnt in tune, but more Correcly that his guitar was in tune with his voice. Usually before going onstage, MeDoweil would sing afew bars and tune the guitar to where it felt ight for his voice. There was no problem, since the pitch of the open tuning determines the Key of the song. By my own estimation, he did have an exquisite sense of rel pitch, anyway. [saw him stopa song more Than once because he was unsatisfied with the tuning, saying, “Wait a minute, yal. T'm sorry, but | just cant play for you the sway T want unless this is tuned just so." It might be advantageous at this p to define batleneck playing 3s opposed to “Slide guitar” playing. While either makes tse of a metal slide bar, piece of pipe, or an actual bottleneck, the basi approach differen ‘A slide guitarist might play in either open of standard. tuning.” but usually favors standard. The player will most often use a flatpick and use the slide to play single-note leads or double-stops at most. In other words, what emerges is not really a self-accompanied style, but one where the slide is able to supplement the guitaris’s already existing style. I would call Duane Allman and his predecessor, Earl Hooker, slide guitarists rather than bottleneck guitarists, Slide guitarists are generally ensemble players, throwing out chords and fills like conventional guitar- ists, and then perhaps adding a solo with the slide, Although they do not usually fingerpick, they have the added versatility of using more keys. It is this inherent limitation of being locked into one or two keys in the open-tuning bottleneck approach that is also its strength, Bottleneck playing, in my estimation, refers only to open tunings and finger- picking. It is generally conceived of as a self-contained style. Anyone who has ever ‘messed around in an open tuning can see how wonderful having three strings tuned to the same note can be. In E tuning, a usual picking pattern takes on the char- acteristics of a monotonic or “dead thumb” bass line, combined with finger- picking a usually syncopated melody line with the first finger. The strength in the bottleneck lies in the fact that you can be thumbpicking your bass notes open, while laying melody notes at the 12th fret or higher. This, as T have said, is also the limitation. It is nearly impossible to play that style in another key without altering the tuning, Try it! In £ tuning, barre across the 3d fret. Now, while wearing the bottleneck, try to reach up to high G at the 15th fret on the E string. No way. So, fingerpicked bottleneck playing almost demands that you be in open tuning, because to keep that monotonic ‘bass line going, and stil use the bottleneck in the upper extremeties, you've got to be tuned open. This style, incidentally. pre- ‘tudes many chord changes. This is why so much bottleneck musichas that “drone” sound with the melody superimposed. This is aiso why Fred favored the short bottle- neck. Most of his playing, and that carly Mississippi country sound, is all based in the tonic. He would pick the open bass strings with his thumb, and at the same time be picking melody lines with his fingerpick, using the bottleneck to affect the pitch. ‘Sometimes, as in “You Got To Move,” he might depart from that pro- cedure and simply play the melody line on the bass strings alone. When he would sing, the guitar part would echo his vocal phrasing almost exactly. Much has been made of the MeDowell style of letting the voice tail off and letting the vocalized bottleneck fill Listen to his version of, “Baby. Please Don't Go" [J Do Not Play No. Rock 'N’ Roll] where he would be playing and sing- ing simultaneously, “Baby, please don't 180," then maybe the next time through, he ‘would sing only “Baby, please...."—let- ting the vibrato of the bottleneck vocalize the two missing words. He would say. “When you hear me play, if you listen real close, you'll hear the guitar say the same thing Fim saying, too.” He was very flat- tered one time by a perceptive fan who ‘came up after the show and said, “You Know, that's the first time L ever heard a talking guitar.” That was the effect Fred ‘was out to achieve. This isa very funda- ‘mental point about the blues that iseasy to lose sight of. In the traditional blues, the lyric is everything. As Fred would tel m “love the guitar, but it's the words you're saying that people are listening to.” During the winter of 1971, when he ‘was staying with me between engagements at the Gaslight, I was in the process of laying down some of my own demo tracks at a recording studio in New York. I asked ‘Fred if he would like to come along and do some coaching, maybe sing or play a duet with me. Although he was not feeling well (Something I did not realize at the time), he agreed in an instant. One of the songs he led me in that day, “Hey, Little Girl (Who Made Your Dress),” was so effective we decided to issue it on my own album Honest Tom Pomposello (Oblivion, od. 6}. A few days after this session, Fred returned home, cancelling the remainder of his tour because of severe stomach pains. On the advice of his doctor, they ‘operated, and he was not to leave his ‘nome again. I visited him there in Missis- sippi that following spring. He was in good spirits and showed me the time of my life. A few days after, I returned home and called, only to find Fred the hospital. We talked over the phone. He never complained, but I could tell the Breat pain he was in, Instead, he kept asking me how I was doing and told me to say hello to my wife, Chris, and his “little buddy,” my son Travis. On July 5, 1973 we headed back down to Mississippi to attend his funeral, Fred MeDowell had died from abdominal cancer, ‘To my knowledge, that informal ses- sion he had done with me in New York City was the last time he set foot in a recording studio. I am very proud of that session. ‘All too often, musicians who stop and analyze the style of another musician, ‘make the mistake of never looking beyond the man's technical prowess. I have never heard anybody play or sing like Missis- sippi Fred McDowell. But 1am convinced that what made Fred great as a musician was what made him great as a man. That issippi mystique” of his, that unde- finable something that is the spirit of the real blues. . Guitar PLAYER ove seesne sor rina Ant Anse Cut A Selected MeDowell Discography Solo albums: Mississippi Fred ‘McDowell, Arhoolie (Box 9195, Berke- ley, CA 94709), F 1021; My Home fs In The Delta, Testament (1085 Valley View ‘Ave, Pasadena, CA 91107), 1-209, Fred McDowell, Vol. I, ‘Athoolie, F 102% Amazing Grace (with the Hunter's Chapel Singers), Testament, 7-219; Long Way From Home, Mile- stone (Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710), MSO 93003; Fred McDowell And Johnny Woods, Rounder (186 Willow Ave., Somerville, MA 02144), 2007; Mississippi Fred McDowell In London, Sire (Warner Bros.), SES 97018; Mississippi Fred McDowell In London, Vol. If, Transatlantic, TRA 203; When I Lay My Burden Down (in- cludes cuts by Furry Lewis), Biograph BLP-12017; Fred McDowell And His Blues Boys, Athoolie, 1046; 1 Do Not Play No Rock 'N’ Roll, Capitol, ST-409; Mississippi Fred McDowell, 1904-1972, Just Sunshine, JSS-4; Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning, Atboolie, 1068; Mississippi Fred McDowell Live In New York, Oblivion, od. 1. With others: Big Mama Thornton In Europe, Athoolie, F 1028; Honest Tom Pomposello. Oblivion, od. 6. NOVEMBER 1977 VOLUME 11 NUMBER 11 Fred's bottleneck adaptation of this beautiful old spiritual is probably his most popular tune. The Rolling Stones’ version of the song, inspired by Mississippi Fred's recording, can be heard (on Sticky Fingers Rolling Stones Records, 59100}, The song is in open-Etuning [E, B. E, Gi, B, E, low to bij (of melody notes on the bass strings in unison with the vocal. The Gs throughout the piece should be played between G-natural Vole iJand makes use McDowell Live In ‘You Got To Move’ By Fred McDowell and Gt. Two versions by McDowell are available on LP: Fred McDowell, Vol. I [Athoolie, 1027] and Mississippi Fred ‘New York (Oblivion, od. 1}. © Tradition Music, used with permission.

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