Like last week's featured bluesman Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi Fred McDowell didn't begin his recording career until late in life–he was in his mid-50s before he was discovered by Alan Lomax and swept up by the early-'60s revival of the genre. McDowell spent most of his early life working on farms and later building freight cars in Memphis (which I assume is where he picked up the nickname "Mississippi," since it would have made no sense to call himself Mississippi Fred when he still lived in Mississippi, where every Fred is by definition a Mississippi Fred). He played on weekends on a more-or-less amateur basis, once saying "I wasn't making money from music… sometimes they'd pay me, and sometimes they wouldn't."

Here's "Goin' Down To The River":

McDowell came from the northern part of the Delta and played slide guitar with a raw passion in the old-school method, influenced by Charley Patton and in turn an influence on guys like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and the Fat Possum Records stable. Dissatisfied with the sound he was getting from using a pocket knife for the slide, he switched to something even more badass–a rib bone–before settling on a modified glass slide that was small enough to allow him to still use his ring finger to make chords on the guitar neck. You can see it pretty well in this next song, "John Henry":

His emphatic description of exactly what kind of music he specialized in was later immortalized in a great album title: I Do Not Play No Rock 'N' Roll. (I also love the title of his 1967 set with harp player Johnny Woods, Mama Says I'm Crazy.) He liked rock well enough, he just didn't play it, and was happy to teach his technique to Bonnie Raitt and pleased by the Rolling Stones' cover of his "You Gotta Move." They repaid him in turn by inviting him to tour with them in Europe, and supposedly bought him a silver lame suit which he was eventually buried in when he died of cancer in 1972. Raitt, another big booster during his life, also bought his gravestone.


"Shake Em On Down":

Here's a short, truncated performance caught in the mid-1960s at the Newport Folk Festival. The clip ends with a bit of "Key To The Highway" by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Here's three from a session in what I'm guessing is the late 1960s. First, "Louise":

"My Babe":

"I Heard Somebody Call" and "Break 'Em On Down":

Here's an excerpt from the 1969 documentary Blues Maker. The complete film can be seen on

I took the photo at the top of this post from Stefan Wirz's extensive McDowell discography.


#13: Mance Lipscomb

#12: John Lee Hooker

#11: Big Mama Thornton

#10: Lead Belly

#9: Lightnin' Hopkins

#8: Son House

#7: Furry Lewis

#6: Bessie Smith (and Bo Diddley)

#5: Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

#4: Howlin' Wolf

#3: Bukka White

#2: Skip James

#1: Sister Rosetta