Happy Birthday Mississippi Fred McDowell

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Re: Happy Birthday Mississippi Fred McDowell

Postby Ben Covington » Fri Jan 13, 2012 9:47 am

Here's the first published interview with Fred, conducted Como, Mississippi 24 February 1964.

Blues Unlimited 24, July-Aug 1965 (p. 4-5)

I'm about 59 I couldn't tell you exactly the date I was born. I was born in Rossville, Tenn.

I was just about a young man when I started playing guitar. In my teens I was. I used to go to dances; I used to sing to the music whilst others was playing. When they'd quit, I'd always grab the guitar, go to doing something with it. I was watching them pretty close to see what they were doing. My older sister I nearly for¬got she played a little guitar, but didn't teach me anything. I didn't get a guitar of my own until 1941. When I was learning, when I was young, I was playing other people's guitars.

I was about 21 when I left Rossville. There I was plowing with a mule; my father was a farmer and I worked with him. We were work¬ing 12 acres, growing cotton, peas and corn. We were able to live off of that at that time because things weren't near about as high as they are now. People raised stuff in then days, raised their own food and hogs, cows and like that. Didn't have that neat to buy.

I went to Memphis from there. I just got tired of plowing. I went there to look around and after I got there I started working at the Buckeye Oil Mill, sacking corn this yellow corn, oats, sweet peas and all like that. They had a great big plant out there. I stayed there about three years, I think. Then I loafed around, stay¬ed with different people, friends. I worked for the Dixon Brothers hooking logs on the track ; worked in Chickasaw stacking logs for barrels, worked at the Illinois Central shop in Memphis building freight cars.

All this time I was picking up guitar. I learned a lot from one fellow, Raymond Payne, in Rosaville. He was really good, played re¬gular style, not bottleneck.

I got that bottleneck style from my uncle. He was an old man the first person I ever saw play with that. Me didn't play with a bottleneck; you know this big bone you get out of a steak? Well, he had done let it dry and smoothed it off and it sounded just like that bottleneck. That's the first somebody I saw play like that. This was in Rossville. I was a little bitty boy when I heard him do that. I just saw him do it, and after I learned how to play, I wade me one and tried it too. Started off playing with a pocket knife. I just remembered him doing it; he didn't show me. Not nothing.

I never could hardly learn no music by nobody trying to show me. Like, I hear you play tonight, well next week sometime it would come to me what you was playing. I'd get the sound of it in my head. Then I'd do it my way, from what I had remembered.

I learned some from another boy named Vandy McKenna, He was a guitar picker too. Pretty near everybody down around Rossville, them boys could play a guitar, some kind of thing. Had dances every Saturday night, hold them in different houses. Sometimes there'd be two fellows playing together. Vandy and Veety Looney, they play¬ed like one playing the lead and the other seconding. Play Big Fat Mama with the Meat Shaking on Her Bones and all such junk as that anything they could think about that was good for dancing. I learned Drop Down, Mama from Vandy McKenna.

The way I got my first guitar; Mr. Taylor, a white man from Texas, he gave me a guitar. I was working in a milk dairy in White Station near Memphis. This was right before I moved to Mississippi. I've been living in Mississippi 24 years. I was married there in 1940, first day of December.

I wasn't making money from music; just playing around for dances and like that.

Sometimes they'd pay me and sometimes they wouldn't. I made up a lot of the songs I sing. It's like you hear a record or something or other, well, you pick out some words out of that record that you like; you sing that and you add something else onto it. It's just like if you're going to pray, and mean it, things will be in your mind; as fast you get one word out something else will come in there. That's the way it is about singing. Songs should tell the truth.

The way Mr. Lomax got in contact with me; he had been there once before a long time ago recording some old people. So he came to some more people's houses they played guitar and violin and so they was telling him about me and he come after me that night. I went over there and played. And he come to my house and stayed all night; I played all night that night.

I never played with any of those others at no dances. But I'd just go there and dig their playing and just as quick as they'd stop playing, well, I'd have my box and I'd play some too. See, one second the other. The guitar player, he'd second behind the violin, and I never could do that, I never could frail no guitar like that. That's why I never did play with them.
Ben Covington
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Joined: Sat Mar 12, 2011 11:20 am
Location: Southern England

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