What is the blues? Well, there are several various styles that we have been exploring together for some time now and each are the blues in their own right. One of the earliest forms of recorded blues music was in the American hill country vein. One of the early pioneers and unsung heroes was Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Fred McDowell was born in Tennessee in 1906, born to farmers who died when he was a young boy. Following in their footsteps, Fred worked in various fields in Tennessee and Mississippi. He grew tired of this work and became fascinated with playing guitar and sinning tunes at picnics and for whoever would listen. Like many other early country hill blues players, McDowell creatively used a pocketknife and rib bone from a cow in order to play slide guitar on a beat-up old acoustic.

This was the basis of this blues style: rough guitar playing, gritty vocals, and stomping percussive rhythm. In this video of Feed McDowell playing “Goin Down to the River,” it is not the prettiest performance, but his rawness is so captivating and drags you in to hear more. He even used his hard foot tapping as a percussive element that pairs well with his slide style and right-hand plucking.

Mississippi Fred McDowell was one of hill country blues’ most well-known musicians and he set the stage for future stars like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough who brought new-age ideas to spruce up the genre.

Hope you enjoy this week’s blues in motion video!


Patrick Ortiz
Keeping the Blues Alive