City Paper is not for tourists
In recent years, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough have brought national attention and critical acclaim to northern Mississippi hill country blues. Tied to both geography and tradition, the music can be traced directly back to the vocals and guitar of Fred McDowell, the subject of the year’s finest blues reissue. Dick Spottswood recorded the 20 tracks on this disc in the living room of McDowell’s Como, Miss., home, in the spring of 1962, prior to McDowell’s debut at the Newport Folk Festival and his recordings for the Arhoolie label. Like that of the African-American cane fife and drum bands native to the region, McDowell’s music retains African musical elements. The sharp attack of his slide guitar mirrors and complements the vocal line, while a droning bass line propels the songs. McDowell creates trancelike rhythms, and masterfully throws in a single unexpected note just when you think you can predict his path. He is compelling on slower pieces such as the classic “Highway 61,” but his rhythmic intensity is unsurpassed on faster songs like “Write Me a Few Lines” and “Shake ‘Em on Down.” McDowell also brings a unique regional flavor to standards such as “Someday Baby” and “John Henry,” singing versions that differ significantly from interpretations made familiar by Delta and Piedmont musicians. The sound quality throughout is excellent, despite the audible presence of a small crowd. A barking dog, a baby, and occasional praise and chatter from McDowell’s friends take nothing away from the music. Rather, this background noise proves that the blues, like all community-based music, is better suited to the living room, house party, and juke joint than the recording studio.