Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Fred McDowell: The Alan Lomax Recordings

It was in 1959 when Alan Lomax returned to the North Mississippi Hill country that he had been in 1940-1941 recording the varied repertoire of Sid Hemphill and others. He had discovered a variety of others including the Pratcher Brothers as well as Ed and Lonnie Young. It was at Lonnie’s house that a small farmer in overalls came over to his neighbor’s with his guitar after a day of picking cotton. When the man started playing, Lomax realized that here was a master musician. On Saturday Lomax came to his house to record for the first time Mississippi Fred McDowell. A bit over 5 years ago, Rounder issued a McDowell album HIs First Recordings, from Lomax’s archive, but now on the Global Jukebox, the Alan Lomax Archive’s label, comes Fred McDowell: The Alan Lomax Recordings. The twelve recordings here predate when Mississippi was added to his name, although their is some duplication with the Rounder release (from song titles and track length), there are several selections which appear to be issued for the first time.

Fred McDowell arguably was the last great Mississippi blues artist (with due respect to Jr. Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside) and listening to these recordings from over a half century ago, one can still hear what it was that caught Lomax’s attention. WIth McDowell’s sister Fanny Davis on comb, his wife Annie Mae joining on vocals and Miles Pratcher adding second guitar for a few selections, it is still McDowell’s gritty vocals and slide guitar that draws us in. Whining slide guitar is set against a driving, droning accompaniment that mesmerizes. While he adapted Bukka White’s Shake ‘Em Down, the song seems even more focused than the powerful original.

Fred McDowell Blues, sounds like a composite of John Lee Williamson’s Down South Blues, and Sleepy John Estes’ Diving Duck Blues, made coherent but McDowell’s aching singing and strong accompaniment. Drop Down Mama is another Estes blues that McDowell transformed into a staple of his repertoire in his readily identifiable style. Also recorded that night was When You Get Home Please Write Me A Few of Your Lines, which he learned from Eli Green with whom McDowell played with after moving to Como from Memphis in the early 1940s. Then there were a couple of gospel numbers including Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning, with his wife joining on vocal.” A gospel number “When the Train Comes Along,” has his accompaniment behind the vocal by Sid Hemphill Carter and Rosalie Hill.

The performances have been digitally remastered from the original tapes and the sound is exemplary. Included is a booklet annotated by Arhoolie Records’ Adam Machado and the Alan Lomax Archive’s Nathan Salsburg that provide history of Lomax’s Mississippi recordings and Fred McDowell’s life and music. The playing time is only 37 minutes, however, the music displays McDowell as among the greatest of down home blues artists. From these superb recordings made at his home, he would go on to make a many more equally compelling recordings over the next decade or so, influencing not just R.L. Burnside and his progeny, but also the likes of Bonnie Raitt. For more information on this and other releases from the Lomax archive vist

A publicist for this recording enabled me to download my review copy of this.

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