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Home ยป blog ยป Mississippi Fred McDowell: “John Henry” and “Goin’ Down to the River”
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Mississippi Fred McDowell: “John Henry” and “Goin’ Down to the River”


This site — which appears to be maintained by a professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Essex in the U.K. — has a nice bio of slide guitar player Mississippi Fred McDowell:

“Mississippi” Fred McDowell was born and grew up in Rossville, Tennessee (pop. 291), a small farming community just east of Memphis and just north of the Mississippi border. The “Mississippi” designation came later in life, after he moved down to Como, Mississippi (pop. 1,391), about 40 miles south of Memphis on the 51 Highway, in his late thirties. McDowell was born about 1904 or 1905, and worked most of his life as a farm laborer, mill worker, and tractor driver. He played music at country dances and juke joints, though as he says, “I wasn’t making money from music… sometimes they’d pay me, and sometimes they wouldn’t.” In his late 50s he was ‘discovered’ and recorded by folklorists Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax, who wrote:

“Fred was surprised when I admired his music sufficiently to visit him for several evenings and record everything he knew. In true country fashion he kept telling me that he couldn’t play nearly as well as other men he knew. In my estimation he is simply a modest man, for in him the great tradition of the blues runs pure and deep.” Continue Reading...

It is interesting how some of these now famous musicians were plucked out of obscurity during the folk and British invasion period in the 1960s.

Above is McDowell’s version of John Henry. Below is Goin’ Down to the River. Peter Simonelli writes a loving review of a 1971 appearance by McDowell at the Gaslight in New York City. The review, posted at Ted Baron’s website, offers five MP3s at the bottom.

Here’s What’s Here

The Daily Music Break explores every genre of music, from hip hop to opera. It's simple: Boundaries are dumb. It's all good. Here is more about the site and here is our index:

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

--Radiohead to ZZ Top (R to Z)

Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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