As I write this piece on my man -- the late, great Mississippi Fred McDowell -- I'm flying on a plane to New Orleans and will be headed to Mississippi once I hit the ground. How fitting. Play the blues.
There's something about sitting on the porch in Mississippi and playing the blues. I mean, I can really feel something in the air down there. Tap into the past, you know, and feel that heavy vibe of the Deep South. Now you're feeling the roots of the blues.
Mississippi Fred McDowell is one of the all-time greats of Delta blues. He lived to a ripe old age, and there are a wealth of film clips and recorded works out there, which is lucky for us students of the blues.
McDowell has this very unique and rhythmic feel to his playing. His slide technique is just impeccably clean and resonant. One unique aspect to MFM is that many of his recordings are solo electric guitar. Like Lightnin' Hopkins, he played that electric guitar all by his lonesome self, and the results are astounding.
Notice in the clip how rhythmic he is. He keeps that bass note pounding with his thumb and is playing many different rhythms, melodies and leads with his index and middle finger. This is something you must master as a player. It's very tricky to get the coordination down, so just shed the shit out of this. Watch what he is doing and keep trying. Eventually you'll get it, but it's challenging, to say the least. You must have your thumb really bombing that low string. You can’t miss a beat, man. Once you get that that thumb in the groove, try dropping in the licks and the melody.
This is why Delta blues players really had to have the coordination of a drummer. That’s how the style was born. These cats had to get the party going with just one guitar and their voice. They figured out how to make the solo performer sound like a full band. They did it, too. Who needs a band when you sound like a hurricane a'coming? Foot stomping, fingers flying, sweat dripping from the Southern sun, no money, just time. That's the Deep South. Hard times made hard music. Talk about keeping it real. This is as real as it gets.
If you really peep his slide technique, now you'll be blown away. I think McDowell is one of the -- if not THE -- cleanest slide players ever. He just has such tone coming off that slide. That's the feel you've got to work toward. When your rhythm sounds like a freight train and your slide notes are as clear as a bird singing on Sunday morning, then you've got it. Play the blues!
Now that you’ve checked his guitar playing, listen to the singing of Fred McDowell. He is as deep and hauntingly passionate as any of the greatest blues singers. The timber of MFM's voice is strong yet reedy and tense. It cuts right to your soul. You feel his music deep. McDowell sings the dark blues, but he also sings the gospel and you could tell that was just a part of living. He seemed to be a very religious man on one side and a true bluesman on the other.
Here's a clip of one of Mississippi Fred McDowell's most famous songs, "You Gotta Move."
I find that every one of the champions of the Delta blues is so incredibly unique. In a way, it's hard to classify these players into one genre. I find it's helpful as a student to really delve into each artist. I mean delve into them deep for a day, a week, a year. The deeper you let yourself get into their songs and records, the more nuances you'll discover. There are all these mystical techniques they are pulling off and only with repeated listening and careful studying can you really figure out what the hell they are doing. It sounds like a lot of work, but I guarantee when you try to figure out what Fred McDowell and his contemporaries are doing, you'll stumble upon all kinds of unique licks and approaches that will be completely original.
The delta blues is the root of all rock and roll guitar playing. So yeah, study up on Stevie Ray, Hendrix, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Clapton, but recognize that players like Mississippi Fred McDowell are the root.
Stay down and dirty and keep on jamming. Thanks for swinging by. Now quit reading and pick up that damn guitar! Play the blues. I will continue my series on the Delta Blues next week, so get ready!
G. Love, aka Garrett Dutton, has been the front man and founder of the alternative hip-hop blues group G. Love & Special Sauce since their inception in 1993. Widely known for his upbeat hits "Cold Beverage," "Baby's Got Sauce" and "Hot Cookin'," G. Love returned to his blues and country roots on his latest release, Fixin' To Die (Amazon, iTunes), produced by Scott and Seth Avett. A road dog if one ever existed, G. Love performs roughly 125 shows a year all over the world including Australia, Japan, Brazil, UK, Canada and the U.S. G. Love teamed up with Gretsch to create his own signature model, the Gretsch G. Love Signature Electromatic Corvette, which features a pair of TV Jones® Power'Tron™ pickups, deluxe mini-precision tuners and a cool Phili-green color scheme with competition stripe that would make ANYONE from Philadelphia proud! Check it out here.