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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.