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Southern Documentary Project ‘Shake ‘Em On Down’ focuses on Fred McDowell’s bottleneck blues with Bonnie Raitt

on April 18, 2017 No comments
By Anna McCollum

Shake ‘Em On Down: The Blues According to Fred McDowell

A Documentary Film by Joe York & Scott Barretta

Documentary filmmakers Scott Barretta, left, and Joe York, right, with musician Bonnie Raitt. Raitt was featured in “Shake ‘Em On Down,” a film about bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell.

B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf. When it comes to Delta blues, there’s no shortage of well-known names to cite. But there’s another region — and other musicians — to credit for Mississippi’s state-line-road-sign claim, “Birthplace of America’s Music.” One such example: North Mississippi’s Fred McDowell.

And thanks to a recent documentary by now-independent producer and director Joe York and Mississippi Blues Trail writer and researcher Scott Barretta, people across the world can learn to appreciate the bottleneck guitarist’s contributions. The celebrated, hour-long film gave even York and Barretta, longtime fans of McDowell, a newfound appreciation for Mississippians’ love of the arts, their native music and their hill country legend.

“Shake ‘Em On Down” was made for the Southern Documentary Project, a branch of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Since its premiere, the documentary has been played at multiple film festivals and on PBS as part of the Reel South series educating the country on the history of North Mississippi blues and McDowell’s crucial contribution to that vibrant tradition. The film’s name was taken from the title of a Bukka White song McDowell recorded several times.

Born around the turn of the 20th century, Mississippi Fred McDowell mastered the slide guitar-playing style by performing at house parties between weekdays working odd jobs or plowing fields. In the late 1950s as McDowell’s name and music gained traction in the area, folklorist Alan Lomax — along with assistant Shirley Collins — made it his mission to record McDowell in Como, where the Rossville, Tenn., native had settled.

The 1959 recording sparked a career that carried McDowell to the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1960s, to meet and mentor a young female artist named Bonnie Raitt, and to have his song “You Gotta Move” recorded by the Rolling Stones on their 1971 Sticky Fingers album.

At the height of that career, a short film about McDowell titled Blues Maker was made. Half a century later, York was working for the Southern Documentary Project, directed by Andy Harper, as well as producing Highway 61, a Mississippi Public Broadcasting blues program hosted by Barretta.

Right around the time York and Barretta were investigating the unique musical traditions of the Mississippi hill country for Highway 61, York discovered Blues Maker. With newfound footage, he and Barretta had a basis upon which to build an in-depth film about an artist they had long admired and respected. Two years and countless interviews later, “Shake ‘Em On Down” was finished.

“It’s one of the finest documentary films ever made on blues,” said Dr. William Ferris of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ferris, a Vicksburg native, founded the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and is one of many voices captured on film by York and Barretta.

“To me, the craft of it is to somehow make all the different voices come into a conversation with each other so they’re telling you, the viewer, a coherent story,” said York, who likened the filmmaking process to completing a puzzle after having to create the pieces.

In addition to Ferris, “Shake ‘Em On Down” includes an appearance by blues legend R.L. Boyce, as well as Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, Raitt and even Collins, the former assistant of folklorist Lomax.

Though Lomax died in 2002, Barretta and York knew that Collins was still living in England. They reached out to her and, she invited them to her hometown just south of London for an interview. And Collins became, in York’s opinion, one of the most important voices in the film.

“It was amazing to be sitting in this beautiful home in England listening to this person talking about someone we had loved and admired and listened to his music forever,” York said. “The first time Fred ever played into a microphone and it was recorded, she was sitting three feet away from him. Here we are halfway across the world, and this lady is bringing this moment to life.”

Mississippi Fred McDowell and Bonnie Raitt, 1970, Philadelphia Folk Festival © David Gahr

Other crucial pieces of the documentary didn’t come together as easily. Because McDowell died in 1972, Barretta and York had limited footage with which to work. But, they struck gold in New York, where they discovered never-before-seen footage — about 40 minutes’ worth — of McDowell performing at the Newport Folk Festival.

“We looked through it, and we said, ‘Okay, we want like eight minutes of this footage to use in the film,’” York said.

But the price tag on the footage was right around $25,000.

“So, all of a sudden, you’ve found this treasure trove of material of this guy that you’ve been literally following around the globe,” York said. “You’ve been working on this for a year, and now you have this thing that’s incredible that you know needs to be in the film, but it costs about the same as a new car.”

Baffled, York and Barretta made a trailer to present to a group at a blues symposium held at Ole Miss. The three-minute preview incorporated a short, watermarked piece of that crucial footage — enough to catch the eye of audience member Ron Feder.

Feder, an alumnus of the Ole Miss law school and a frequent benefactor of arts-related programs in Oxford, approached York afterwards and expressed his desire to contribute to the making of “Shake ‘Em On Down.”

“And, I kid you not, within a week, we had a check from Ron Feder for $25,000,” York said. “He and his wife Becky, who has sadly passed on in the last year, became executive producers on the film.”

That contribution, in Barretta’s opinion, made the documentary.

“There were no photos, to our knowledge, of McDowell and Lomax together,” said Barretta. “And the opening scene from Newport was wonderful for the underlying story of how Lomax’s discovery of McDowell led to his becoming a well-known blues artist.”

“Mississippi” Fred McDowell and Bonnie Raitt performing together.

Another triumph came when Bonnie Raitt, who learned her guitar-playing style from McDowell, agreed to be a part of “Shake ‘Em On Down.” Raitt’s former manager, Dick Waterman, had worked with McDowell in the ’60s and early ’70s and introduced the two. Waterman was one of many contacts that Barretta had made working in the blues field, and better yet, he was in Oxford.

“That was huge,” York said. “We knew we couldn’t do the film seriously without her being a part of it, because their relationship was so strong and, obviously, what she’s gone on to do with some of what she learned with Fred goes without saying.”

Stories like that of Mississippi Fred McDowell — a “major figure in American music,” according to Ferris — not only inspire but also educate.

“Because the blues is often associated with the Mississippi Delta, it is important that the public knows that other parts of our state also produced a rich blues heritage,” Ferris said. “Generations of Northeast Mississippi blues artists have been strongly influenced by Fred McDowell’s bottleneck blues.”

But it was not just McDowell’s prominence that drew people to him, according to York. After all, people who didn’t have to give money or encouragement to Shake ‘Em On Down did so nevertheless.

“To me, it was the process building those relationships and working with those people and seeing how Mississippians are willing to come together to help tell inspiring stories about Mississippi,” York said. “It’s a testament to the incredible spirit and will that exists among the Feders and, really, of lots and lots of people in Mississippi who support the arts and one another.”

Source: © Copyright
The Oxford Eagle
The Southern Documentary Project
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Bonnie Raitt’s Blues

on November 9, 2015 No comments
by: Tom Reney

Bonnie Raitt’s 66th birthday was yesterday. The singer-guitarist (she qualifies as bandleader, songwriter and activist, too) was born in Burbank, CA on November 8, 1949, the daughter of the late Broadway actor John Raitt, whose major credits included Oklahoma, The Pajama Game, and Carousel. Wikipedia’s entry on Papa John (“He set the standard for virile, handsome, strong-voiced leading men during the golden age of the Broadway musical”) gives a likely hint as to why Bonnie was so at home hanging with and learning from many of the hyper-masculine leading men of blues in the sixties.

Her background (WASP, upstate New York Quaker summer camp and boarding school, Radcliffe) suggested a quite different direction in life than female blues-rock icon, and that’s an understatement, for there were very few white women immersing themselves in blues culture in the sixties, and even fewer actual musicians among them to serve as role models.

Bonnie’s immediate predecessors included Nancy Harrow, Judy Roderick, Maria Muldaur, and Tracy Nelson, each of whom tended toward the Classic blues of Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Chippie Hill; it was Raitt alone who broke new ground in developing an identity and mastery of guitar-driven Delta blues.

Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Linda Ronstadt, Santa Monica, 1974 © Henry Dilitz

Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Linda Ronstadt, Santa Monica, 1974 © Henry Dilitz

Bonnie’s early models were Odetta and Joan Baez. In Baby Let Me Follow You Down, The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years (which I quote throughout this piece), she said she “learned to play guitar” off an Odetta album that she first heard at Camp Regis in 1959. “Then I heard Joan Baez and fell in love. I wanted to pierce my ears and grow thin cheekbones.”
Next came the Elektra album Blues at Newport ’63. There she heard Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Rev. Gary Davis, John Lee Hooker, and John Hammond, Jr. It drew her in and made her eager to attend the following summer’s Newport Folk Festival, but at 15, her elders deemed her “too young.”
From the album, John Hurt’s “Candy Man” was especially appealing. “When I heard that, I went, ‘I don’t know what that stuff is, but this guy is so cute, his voice is so cute, and his guitar is so pretty.’ I just had to learn about it.”

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Mississippi Fred McDowell Blues Trail Marker

on May 8, 2009 No comments

Bonnie Raitt attends Fred McDowell honor

Candice Ludlow – WKNO – 2009-05-08

Very Happy and emotional reunion of sorts, Dick Waterman and Bonnie Raitt, back in Como, Mississippi to honor their old friend Mississippi Fred McDowell
Very Happy and emotional reunion of sorts, Dick Waterman and Bonnie Raitt, back in Como, Mississippi to honor their old friend Mississippi Fred McDowell

The Mississippi Blues Trail Marker honoring Mississippi Fred McDowell was unveiled Thursday in Como, Mississippi. Candice Ludlow has more.

That’s the music of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Notice the resonating slide sound?

Como is where Mississippi Fred McDowell called home. It’s located 45 miles south of Memphis along Highway 55.

Mississippi Fred McDowell was born and raised in Rossville, TN, just outside of Memphis in the early 1900’s. He learned to play slide guitar from his father’s cousin who used a steak bone to slide along the frets as he played. Later, Mississippi Fred McDowell used a bottleneck slide.

Dick Waterman was McDowell’s manager during the 60s.

“He represents what’s called the hill country style. There’s the delta style of Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and that type that went up to Chicago. There’s a hill country style that comes from Fred. It’s really most prevalent in Como, Senatobia, Holly Springs,”

Dick Waterman said.

It was sweltering hot on Main Street, a two-lane road through town with brick storefronts. Approximately 200 people were fanning their faces as the dedication began with students from a local high school playing and singing one of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s songs.

Grammy award winning singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt made a special appearance at the dedication for her mentor.

“Well, he was one of the first blues artists that I got to meet, and I fell in love with his music from the first time I heard it on record. To have the honor and privilege to be able to be friends and tour with him in my early career was a gift I think like no other. His style of slide playing and his rhythm playing influenced me tremendously. I don’t know why we hit it off so much, but we just loved each other very much. It was a big loss when he passed when I was only 22, so it means a lot to me to be able to be here today.”
“Well, I’m so happy to hear that they’re doing this blues trail with 150 markers, elevating the music of blues and culture to the rest of the world. It’s been long overdue. Mississippi Fred McDowell is a giant in blues and there are so many other people that deserve that attention,”

Raitt said.

Bonnie Raitt, Hubert Sumlin, Como Mayor Judy Sumner.Very Happy and emotional reunion of sorts, Dick Waterman and Bonnie Raitt, back in Como, Mississippi to honor their old friend Mississippi Fred McDowell.Bonnie Raitt and Hubert Sumlin at the Mississippi Fred McDowell Blues Marker 05/07/2009Dick Waterman - Rev. John Wilkins - Bonnie Raitt  05/07/2009The Mississippi Blues Trail, created by the Mississippi Blues Commission, is a project to place interpretive markers at notable historical blues sites throughout Mississippi. The trail extends from southern Mississippi and winds its way to Memphis, Tennessee. In Como is one such marker honoring the late "Mississippi Fred" McDowell, renowned for his bottle-neck style of playing the guitar and for his soulful singing of "Highway 61" and other blues classics. On Thursday, May 7, 2009 , a handsome Blues Marker was installed on Como's Main Street median across from Como City Hall.Dick Waterman and Bonnie RaittRev. John Wilkins, Alex Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, Hubert SumlinMelody CummingsMorris CummingsRL BoyceRicky StevensRev, John Wilkins / Bonnie RaittRev, John Wilkins / Bonnie RaittRev, John Wilkins / Bonnie RaittBonnie Raitt / Hubert SumlinDick WatermanNathaniel WarrenRL BoyceFred McDowell's familyBonnie Raitt and Fred McDowell's family.Fred's family presenting Bonnie Raitt with a home made basket and flowers.Basket of flowers presentation.Bonnie RaittDaddy MackBonnie and HubertBonnie, Hubert & Watermelon SlimBonnie and HubertBonnie and HubertRev. John Wilkins, Bonnie Raitt & Como Mayor Judy SumnerCinda & Dick WatermanCinda & Dick WatermanBlues MarkerBlackOak SlimDick Waterman / Ronnie WilliamsDick WatermanDick WatermanDick WatermanDick Waterman / Tony LaxTonyFred McDowell Marker"Mississippi" Fred McDowell  Blues Trail Marker - Rear"Mississippi" Fred McDowell  Blues Trail Marker - Rear"Mississippi" Fred McDowell  Blues Trail Marker - RearComo Mississippi Water TowerMississippi Fred McDowell's grave in Panola County, Mississippi (outside Como)Mississippi Fred McDowell's head stone in Hammond Hill Missionary Baptist Church Cemetary, Como, Ms.Back of Mississippi Fred McDowell's head stone.Lyrics to his best known song, also covered by the Rolling Stones.Mississippi Fred McDowell's head stone in Hammond Hill Missionary Baptist Church Cemetary, Como, Ms.This is a marker that has been up several years in Fred McDowell's hometown of Rossville, Tn. There is a discrepancy on the date of his birth and death between this marker and his grave stone which was purchased in 1994 by a donation from Bonnie Raitt. I think a trip to the court house may be in order to clear this up but I believe the information on the grave stone is most correct. His original grave stone is currently at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Ms.

Photo’s © by Tony Lax

Eventually, there will be 150 Blues Trail Markers throughout Mississippi and in states connected with the blues from Mississippi. The first three blues trail markers were unveiled in 2006 in Holly Ridge, Greenville and Greenwood. The first Mississippi Blues Trail marker to be placed out of state was done so today at Third and Beale.

Shows Mississippi blues singer, Fred Mc Dowell, singing and talking about his blues. Includes scenes of the area which helped to shape his country blues.
Blues Maker – by Univ Of Mississippi – Published 1969

For WKNO News, I’m Candice Ludlow in Como, Mississippi. © Copyright 2009, WKNO

Source: © Copyright WKNO 91.1FM

Mississippi Fred McDowell

Como, Mississippi
Como, Mississippi

McDowell was born in Rossville, Tennessee, near Memphis. His parents, who were farmers, died when McDowell was a youth. He started playing guitar at the age of 14 and played at dances around Rossville. Wanting a change from ploughing fields, he moved to Memphis in 1926 where he worked in a number of jobs and played music for tips. He settled in Como, Mississippi, about 40 miles south of Memphis, in 1940 or 1941, and worked steadily as a farmer, continuing to perform music at dances, and picnics. Initially he played slide guitar using a pocket knife and then a slide made from a beef rib bone, later switching to a glass slide for its clearer sound. He played with the slide on his ring finger.

While commonly lumped together with ‘Delta Blues singers,’ McDowell actually may be considered the first of the bluesmen from the ‘North Mississippi’ region – parallel to, but somewhat east of the Delta region – to achieve widespread recognition for his work. A version of the state’s signature musical form somewhat closer in structure to its African roots (often eschewing the chord change for the hypnotic effect of the droning, single chord vamp), the North Mississippi style (or at least its aesthetic) may be heard to have been carried on in the music of such figures as Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside; as well as the jam band The North Mississippi Allstars, while serving as the original impetus behind creation of the Fat Possum record label out of Oxford, Mississippi.

The 1950s brought a rising interest in blues music and folk music in the United States, and McDowell was brought to wider public attention, beginning when he was discovered and recorded in 1959 by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins.[1] McDowell’s recordings were popular, and he performed often at festivals and clubs. McDowell continued to perform blues in the North Mississippi blues style much as he had for decades, but he sometimes performed on electric guitar rather than acoustic. While he famously declared “I do not play no rock and roll,” McDowell was not averse to associating with many younger rock musicians: He coached Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar technique, and was reportedly flattered by The Rolling Stones’ rather straightforward, authentic version of his “You Gotta Move” on their 1971 Sticky Fingers album.

McDowell’s 1969 album I Do Not Play No Rock ‘N’ Roll was his first featuring electric guitar. It features parts of an interview in which he discusses the origins of the blues and the nature of love. (This interview was sampled and mixed into a song, also titled “I Do Not Play No Rock ‘N’ Roll” by Dangerman in 1999.) McDowell’s final album, Live in New York (Oblivion Records), was a concert performance from November 1971 at the Village Gaslight, Greenwich Village, New York.

Mississippi Fred McDowell's grave in Panola County, Mississippi (outside Como)
Mississippi Fred McDowell’s grave in Panola County, Mississippi (outside Como)

McDowell died of cancer in 1972, and was buried at Hammond Hill Baptist Church, between Como and Senatobia. On August 6, 1993 a memorial was placed on his grave site by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. The ceremony was presided over by Dick Waterman, and the memorial with McDowell’s portrait upon it was paid for by Bonnie Raitt, Dick Waterman (agent)and Chris Strachwitz (Arhoolie Records). The memorial stone was a replacement for an inaccurate and damaged marker (McDowell’s name was misspelled) and the original stone was subsequently donated by McDowell’s family to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Source: © Copyright Wikipedia

Singer Bonnie Raitt to Attend Como Blues Trail Celebration

by Martha F. T. Garrison

Thursday, May 7 will be a very special day in Como. That’s when the town will become an official destination on the Mississippi Blues Trail. In an afternoon ceremony starting at 2, on the median of Como’s Main Street across from City Hall, a handsome blues marker honoring the late Mississippi Fred McDowell will be unveiled. Singer Bonnie Raitt, who credits Fred McDowell as having exerted a major influence upon her music, is one of the guests who’ll travel to McDowell’s hometown for this ceremony. After the unveiling, guests can stroll a short way down Main Street to hear live music and enjoy refreshments in the town’s public library and its adjacent Memorial Garden.

Features of the 2 p.m. unveiling ceremony on the median include performances by a group of 11th and 12th graders, who will sing McDowell songs. These young members of a jazz stage band and a jazz choir will travel to Como from their Columbus, MS boarding school, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. These bright young people hail from various towns all over the state. Additionally, the “Como Mamas” group will sing several gospel selections. Representatives from two Como-area churches – Hunter’s Chapel, where McDowell often attended and sang, and Hammond Hill Baptist, where he is buried – will say the invocation and the benediction. Several of the late musician’s relatives and friends will be introduced at the Ceremony.

Following the unveiling ceremony, the reception in the public library and Garden will offer guests a chance to meet McDowell’s kinfolk and hear live music by the following performers: Nathaniel Warren of Texas, who’ll play and sing several McDowell numbers; R. L. Boyce & the Como Breakdown, a well-known bluesy band; and singer Mary Ann “Action” Jackson. Organizers of the concert and reception are Como’s librarian Melba Major, Como resident Beverly Findley, and several other volunteers. The reception and concert are funded by the library and the Como Civic Club. Margaret Logan, Jo Anne Billingsley, and various other members of the Como Garden Club will create the fresh flower arrangements to decorate both the library and the Garden.

McDowell’s blues marker will permanently grace Como’s Main Street median, and it will have information about him on one side, and a map of the entire Mississippi Blues Trail on its other side. The Chairwoman of the Como Historic Preservation Commission, Meg Bartlett, assisted by her fellow Commissioners, worked extensively with the Mississippi Development Authority in preparing for the placement and unveiling of the marker.

Noted blues expert, Professor Scott Barretta, host of the Mississippi Public Radio blues-music program, Highway 61, describes McDowell as follows: “Mississippi Fred McDowell is widely viewed by blues aficionados as the most talented artist of his generation to be “discovered” during the blues revival of the late ’50s and ’60s. McDowell moved to Como, Mississippi around 1940, and performed widely around the region, influencing local bluesmen, including R.L. Burnside. In the wake of his discovery by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959, McDowell began performing on the festival and coffeehouse circuits including the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. McDowell’s slide guitar playing had already influenced young white artists, notably Bonnie Raitt, and in 1971 the Rolling Stones covered McDowell’s version of the gospel standard “You’ve Got to Move” on their album ‘Sticky Fingers.’ “

As musicians from all over the world know, Mississippi is synonymous with blues. “The repertoire of any blues or rock band is full of songs, guitar licks, and vocal inflections borrowed from Mississippi bluesmen…,” says a Blues Trail publication. No matter where you go in this state, you are never far from the home, birthplace, or burial ground of some famous blues artist. Besides Como, other Mississippi locations which are, or soon will be, on the Mississippi Blues Trail map include Walls (Memphis Minnie), Berclair (B.B. King), McComb (Bo Diddley), Holly Springs (R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough), Meridian (Jimmy Rodgers), and Vicksburg (the Red Tops). Many other Mississippi communities will have markers honoring such blues greats as Jelly Roll Morton, Pine Top Perkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, and Robert Johnson. (For more information about the Mississippi Blues Trail, visit www.msbluestrail.org.)

In case of rain on May 7, the Como festivities will take place at 211 Main. The Como Historic Preservation Commission extends a cordial invitation to all – and especially to Mississippians, Memphians, and other Mid-Southerners – to come to Como to pay tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell, and to celebrate this region’s rich musical heritage. To find out more about the Como celebration, call (662) 526-5283.

Blues Trail markers and the entire Blues Trail project are made possible by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, the Mississippi Development Authority/Tourism Division, and local contributions. Como’s marker honoring Fred McDowell received substantial local funding from the Panola Partnership, Inc., located in Batesville.

Mississippi Blues Trail Markers
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