Monday, December 15, 2008

Song of the Week: "Going To The River", Mississippi Fred McDowell

After World War II, in the northern hills of Mississippi, a music sub-genre grew like the honeysuckle vines that predominate the small farms of that area. It came to be known as Hill Country blues, and like it's older kissing-cousin to the South, delta blues, it incorporates finger picking, a healthy dose of bottleneck guitar, and stories of murder, deception, hard days working and, of course, the frustrations of love.

If anyone was to stake a claim on being the grandpappy of Hill Country blues, it would perhaps be Mississippi Fred McDowell. McDowell played a mean sounding, repetitive, rhythm-heavy solo blues that owed much to Son House and Charlie Patton. For much of his life McDowell worked the evening in local juke joints in and around his hometown of Como, Mississippi while working the days on his small farm. He had been doing this since the 1920's but it wasn't until 1959 that McDowell was "discovered" by folklorist Alan Lomax. For Lomax and a small number of blues fans, it was like opening a time capsule. Blues had moved North, had become upbeat, incorporated full bands and was edging into what was about to become Soul Music. But in the rural northern hills of Mississippi, a handful of musicians in abutting farms, perhaps unaware of the trends of the day, were still playing it the old way. Arguably, nobody did it better than McDowell. Mississippi Fred incorporated insanely catchy riffs with his his edgy slide playing as he would double the vocals and the guitar melody in perfect pitch and timing. As he once said in a recording: "What I sing, the guitar sings." The two instruments were one. And so it was, starting at the age of 55, McDowell made his first recording, filmed his first appearances, traveled abroad for the first time and became blues royalty overnight. He would be dead 12 years later. But in that brief time, his traditional country blues left a major imprint. McDowell's neighbors, Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside would soon get recording sessions and Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones were just a couple of the popular acts who would pick up his style and would go on to have success covering McDowell.

In 1965, McDowell traveled to Germany with a group of blues musicians. Most of his tour mates, like Matt Murphy, had completed the transition to upbeat urban blues. Fred McDowell was still playing it old style. Sitting down and letting the guitar and voice sing it together. The song filmed in '65 Germany, Going Down to The River, is our Song of the Week


  1. What an infectious riff! It has a timeless and hypnotic quality. I think of Ali Farka Toure, the Malian guitarist. And what do you call that lead at mid-song? It's all piercing slide, not hypnotic. Rhythm takes the back seat until the foot-tapping builds again pulling the lead back into the groove.

    If you haven't checked out the Matt Murphy clip, I recommend it highly. He's playing with Willie Dixon on bass and a couple others on drum and piano. It's called Matt's Guitar Boogie, and though the rhythm section maintains the boogie throughout, the song also has a straightforward jazz solo breakdown. The solos are a perfect combination of tight improvisation. Murphy's lead is fluid yet with hiccups of repeated phrasings. This is followed by the pianist (anyone know the name?) who mixes simplistic phrasing with a rich boogie-fingers-everywhere attack. It all culminates with Dixon way down past the neck, playing the song out to its barest. He then hits the strings below the bridge a couple times before he drives the song back on course. Check it out!

  2. The pianist in question is Memphis Slim who spent much of his career tickling Muddy Water's ivories. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

    As to "Ali Farka Toure, the Malian guitarist", uh, who?

  3. Ali Farka Toure. Hearing him confirmed that the blues has its roots in West Africa. My introduction was the disc recorded with Ry Cooder and he has also recorded with Corey Harris and Taj Mahal. He was from the Timbuktu region of Mali and he died a couple years ago. His son, I believe, is following in his footsteps.

    Give a listen to this clip:

  4. You'd have to go all the way to Timbuktu to hear anyone better!

    By saying his son is following i his footsteps, do you mean he is planning on dying?

  5. I discovered the blues as a young teenager and thought I was pretty hip, buying records by Muddy and Wolf and Jimmy Reed and Sonny Boy while my peers were going ga-ga over Madonna and Culture Club. But, while I could definitely appreciate the proto-rock'n'roll-ness of the more urban-style blues artists, I had trouble understanding the country/folk-blues variations. I gave it a good go, and found a few artists I really enjoyed (Son House, Lightnin' Hopkins), but to my untrained ears much of it sounded unstructured and haphazard. I wanted to like it, thought that I SHOULD like it, but I couldn't seem to make any sense of it.

    Recently, after many years of not listening to ANY blues, I revisited that section of my record collection and discovered that the Chicago-style urban blues that had once been my favorite didn't do much for me. However, the county/folk blues, for reasons that I cannot entirely explain, suddenly sounded much more rewarding than it had before. I haven't yet found the resources to delve deeper into this newly-appreciated genre, but I'm thankful that you're covering these artists here. It helps give me ideas on what to buy when I have the opportunity. Mississippi Fred will definitely be on my wish list.