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Mississippi Fred McDowell

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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.

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