Fred McDowell (January 12, 1906 – July 3, 1972), known by his stage name Mississippi Fred McDowell, was an American hill country bluessinger and guitar player.
McDowell was born in Rossville, Tennessee. His parents were farmers, but both died while Fred was in his youth. He took up the guitar at the age of 14 and was soon playing for tips at dances around Rossville. Seeking a change from plowing fields, he moved to Memphis in 1926, where he worked in the Buck-Eye feed mill, which processed cotton into oil and other products. In 1928, he moved to Mississippi to pick cotton. He finally settled in Como, Mississippi, about 40 miles south of Memphis, in 1940 or 1941 (or maybe the late 1950s), where he worked as a full-time farmer for many years while continuing to play music on weekends at dances and picnics.
After decades of playing for small local gatherings, McDowell was recorded in 1959 by roving folklore musicologist Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins on their Southern Journey field-recording trip. With interest in blues and folk music rising in the United States at the time, McDowell’s field recordings for Lomax caught the attention of blues aficionados and record producers, and within a couple of years, he had finally become a professional musician and recording artist in his own right. His LPs proved quite popular, and he performed at festivals and clubs all over the world.
McDowell continued to perform blues in the north Mississippi style much as he had for decades, sometimes on electric guitar rather than acoustic guitar. He was particularly renowned for his mastery of slide guitar, a style he said he first learned using a pocketknife for a slide and later a polished beef rib bone. He ultimately settled on the clearer sound he got from a glass slide, which he wore on his ring finger.While he famously declared, “I do not play no rock and roll,” he was not averse to associating with younger rock musicians. He coached Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar technique and was reportedly flattered by The Rolling Stones‘ rather straightforward version of his “You Gotta Move” on their 1971 album Sticky Fingers In 1965 he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, together with Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Roosevelt Sykes and others.