Fred McDowell was an enigma. A modest, self-effacing man who didn’t even own a guitar until he was 37 years old, and who worked as a farmer until he was over 60, Fred was a prodigious virtuoso of the bottleneck guitar.
His command of the expressive ‘vocal’ quality of his playing, with it’s slides and slurs, shows an intense and personal style that has been highly influential in the Blues. In contrast to the overpowering bottleneck style of Elmore James, Fred’s lyrical guitar would talk softly, shout with anger, then weep or laugh with the intimate nuances of a friend telling a story.
Fred was born a few miles away in Rossville Tennesee in 1904, and as a young man he met Charley Patton, who he described as “a loose mule runnin’ around through the world”. When Fred went to parties he would sing along with the players, and when they had finished he would take a guitar and play what he had just heard. He was shown some bottleneck technique by his uncle, who used a polished steak bone as a slide. Fred adopted a rambling lifestyle, picking up work and playing opportunities where he could.
In 1941, he was given a guitar by a Mr. Taylor, a white Texan man, who had seen him playing in Memphis where he was working at a dairy. Shortly afterwards Fred married Annie-Mae, who was a great singer herself, and split his time between playing at parties or in the streets and farming a small piece of land outside Como.
Fred’s ringing tone and eloquent slide-work;
Those field recordings made in 1959 were released on various folk compilation albums, but Fred was still playing for tips in front of Stuckeys candy store in town. They did, however, prompt Chris Strachwitz to come and find Fred to record for his new Arhoolie label. The two albums they released in the mid-60’s revealed a talented player who projected his thoughtful style of Blues with great emotional force. This time, he really was taken up by the Folk/Blues community. He played the festival circuit and toured Europe to great acclaim, and his style began to influence young players. Bonnie Raitt cites Fred as one of her biggest influences, as did the new generation of British players like the young Jo Ann Kelly (gone before her time) and her brother Dave, a stalwart of The Blues Band. ‘You’ve Got to Move’ was on the second Arhoolie album, and this song became Fred’s signature tune, as well as his most profitable when it was covered by The Rolling Stones on the ‘Sticky Fingers’ album.
Fred don’t play no Rock’n’Roll!
In 1966 Fred’s ‘Long Way from Home’ album sold well and that year he also recorded ‘Amazing Grace’, an album of “Delta Spirituals” backed by his hometown Hunters Chapel Choir, with his wife in the line-up! When they titled his 1969 album ‘I Do Not Play No Rock ‘n’ Roll’, it may have been to calm the nerves of purists who didn’t like the idea of Fred playing an electric guitar backed by a young white band, but it proved that his sensitive style worked just as well in this setting. He went on to record excellent live albums in New York and London, and was the subject of his own documentary film, as well as appearing in The Blues Maker and Roots of American Music.