Rory Block was fortunate to learn her music from (in addition to recordings) some of the masters of the blues idiom from such then surviving masters as Reverend Gary Davis, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell. After her album devoted to Robert johnson’s music, she has continued with a disc of the music of Son House and now Mississippi Fred McDowell as part of a series of recordings where she salutes those who mentored her. Her Robert Johnson tribute was modeled closely on Johnson’s originals whereas her Son House tribute she mixed some performances with others that took more liberties. On her newest CD, Shake ‘Em on Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell (Stony Plain) she has written originals as well as given her own interpretation to McDowell’s songs.
The fact that her interpretations of songs associated with McDowell are personal interpretations along with her originals that incorporate elements of McDowell’s percussive, slide style without being a pastiche of such style, makes this a very different and, in my opinion, the most successful of her tribute recordings. It should be noted that it certainly sounds as if there is overdubbing of guitar parts and vocals, but it is wonderfully recorded so kudos to Rob Davis for the excellent engineering job.
This tribute opens with two of Ms Block’s originals. Steady Freddy, which has a forceful accompaniment as she has penned lyrics re-creating McDowell’s autobiography although the dialect is that of Ms Block and not Fred McDowell. It is followed by the remarkable Mississippi Man, a fully realized performance in part this song is Rory’s own story as a fifteen year old and her meeting the Mississippi Man. These lead in to her interpretations of McDowell’s songs that evoke the master while having her place her own stamp on them. She captures the mesmerizing flavor on Kokomo Blues, and that Eleven Light City. Good Morning Little School Girl is a bit more reflective and less rhythmically insistent than McDowell’s renditions, as she recasts the lyrics from the standpoint of the school girl who wants to go back home with the school boy. What’s the Matter Now, impressively builds on McDowell’s driving guitar style while vocally she lengthens the lyrics for her impassioned vocals.
Shake ‘Em Down illustrates her natural distillation of McDowell’s driving, droning guitar style while she overdubs vocals which she convincingly delivers, employs a pronounced rhythmic emphasis, while Worried Mind is a nice rendition of McDowell’s performance that might have come from John Estes’ Someday Baby, or perhaps Big Maceo’s Worried Life Blues. Whatever, Block makes this her own just like Muddy Waters, Fred McDowell, Big Maceo and others had done. The Man That I’m Lovin’, is likewise another song associated with Sleepy John Estes that McDowell translated into his style which again proves potent inspiration for Ms. Block who reinvents it yet anew.
Ancestral Home is another Rory original that incorporates elements of African musical traditions with her lyrics about the slave trade mixed with her overdubbing some African dialect in the vocal. Another original, the powerful The Breadline was originally an instrumental medley built from McDowell riffs to which she added lyrics about losing one’s home and can’t pay her lawyer and the rich folks on vacation “they don’t give a damn” with the line “hard times are here again” so contemporary and relevant. The album concludes with Woke Up This Morning, one of McDowell’s moving gospel songs with Rory’s moving multi-tracked vocals, followed by her strong re-imaging of another of McDowell’s signature songs, Write Me a Few of Your Lines.
Rory Block deserves kudos for this marvelous tribute with its ambitious and imaginative look at McDowell’s work that is inspired by the spirit of McDowell’s music, but has her imprint on all the performances. Of the eight songs associated with Fred McDowell, she has included a few of his signature songs, but also included lesser known parts of his repertoire and that added to her own originals making for a superb recording.
I received my review copy from Stony Plain Records.