Cultural Percussionist

Mississippi Fred McDowell Day

Fred McDowell (January 12, 1906 – July 3, 1972), known by his stage name Mississippi Fred McDowell, was an American hill country blues singer and guitar player.

McDowell was born in Rossville, Tennessee. His parents, who were farmers, died in his youth. He started playing guitar at the age of 14 and played at dances around Rossville. Wanting a change from plowing fields, he moved to Memphis in 1926, where he worked in the Buck-Eye feed mill, which processed cotton into oil and other products. He also had a number of other jobs and played music for tips. In 1928 he moved to Mississippi to pick cotton. He finally settled in Como, Mississippi, about 40 miles south of Memphis, in 1940 or 1941 (or maybe the late 1950s), and worked steadily as a farmer, continuing to perform music at dances and picnics. Initially he played slide guitar, using a pocketknife and then a slide made from a beef rib bone, later switching to a glass slide for its clearer sound. He played with the slide on his ring finger.

Although commonly regarded as a Delta blues singer, McDowell may be considered the first north hill country blues artist to achieve widespread recognition for his work. Musicians from the hill country – an area parallel to and east of the Delta region – produced a version of the blues somewhat closer in structure to its African roots. It often eschews chord change for the hypnotic effect of the droning single-chord vamp. McDowell’s records offer glimpses of the style’s origins, in the form of little-recorded supporting acts such as the string duo Bob and Miles Pratcher, the guitarist Eli Green, the fife player Napoleon Strickland, the harmonicist Johnny Woods and Hunter’s Chapel Singers. McDowell’s style (or at least its aesthetic) can be heard in the music of such hill country figures as Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, who in turn served as the impetus behind the creation of the Fat Possum record label in Oxford, Mississippi, in the 1990s.

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