Earlier this month, Murfreesboro-based photographer and blues musician Bill Steber played a few songs on the MTSU campus to bookend an evening event investigating the origins of the so-called North Mississippi Hill Country Blues and the genre’s godfather “Mississippi” Fred McDowell. The night, organized by the school's Center for Popular Music, was centered around a screening of a new documentary.
In Shake Em On Down: The Blues According To Fred McDowell, we see Bonnie Raitt interacting with McDowell around 1970 when he was her friend and mentor. She’s but one prominent roots figure featured in the film, which was co-produced by Oxford, MS based blues scholar and radio host Scott Barretta. His take: “Fred McDowell was this raw talent who when Lomax found him and recorded him in 1959 wrote in his notebook: ‘Perfect.’”
The reference is to famed American folklorist Alan Lomax, who by then had discovered Leadbelly and Muddy Waters among others. Lomax died in 2002, but the filmmakers tracked down his assistant, Shirley Collins, who is living in her native England. Also tapped were musicians Taj Mahal, Charlie Musselwhite and Dom Flemons. Scholars and musicologists in the film include folklorist Bill Ferris, artist manager Dick Waterman and Arhoolie Records founder and producer Chris Strachwitz.
Barretta describes McDowell as a big part of the 1960s folk revival but rare among the famous blues men of the day because he’d been a sharecropper and a local community musician until his 50s when he made his first recordings.
“A lot of the scholars we interviewed for the film said if he had recorded back in the 20s and 30s he’d have been talked about alongside Charley Patton and Son House and Bukka White,” Barretta said. “Yeah, Fred was one of the greatest artists. There wasn’t really any doubt in their minds about it.”
McDowell cast a long shadow after his death in 1972. Besides Bonnie Raitt, key figures like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough built on McDowell’s droning pulse and his song repertoire. It was woven into the centuries old African American fife and drum music popularized by Othar Turner. And the scene exploded into the roots mainstream with the music of the North Mississippi Allstars.
Baretta’s film, which was directed and edited by his University of Mississippi colleague and collaborator Joe York, was featured on the public TV series Reel South and they are exploring distribution opportunities.